Thursday, 6 May 2010

Special polls eyed as CF cards are rushed to field

Business Mirror

DESPITE assurances by supplier Smartmatic that it can deploy all the corrected compact flash (CF) drives for the Precinct Count Optical Scan (PCOS) units in time to do test runs before the May 10 polls, Commission on Elections (Comelec) Chairman Jose Melo on Wednesday held out the possibility of special elections in some far-flung areas that may not get these on time.

Melo estimated that, at worst, special elections may have to be done in 5 percent of the voting areas should the Comelec be forced to declare a failure of elections there.

Melo said the plan to conduct special elections is part of the poll body’s contingency should some of the CF cards—the wrong configuration of which was blamed for PCOS glitches in Monday’s legally mandated testing-and-sealing exercise—fail to reach certain remote areas despite the best efforts of the Comelec and Smartmatic.

The Comelec, however, has ruled out a postponement of elections by a few days, as suggested on Tuesday by elections lawyer Romulo Macalintal.

In a separate press briefing on Wednesday, Elections Commissioner Gregorio Larrazabal and Smartmatic Asia-Pacific head Cesar Flores had outlined the steps taken to retrieve from the field the wrongly configured CF cards, to source new CF cards and “burn” the right instructions, and then send them out to the field so teachers serving as Board of Election Inspectors (BEIs) can get them for use in the PCOS testing and sealing before May 10.

“We are preparing for some areas that might not be reached [in time] by the CF cards, [and] special elections in far-flung places” are part of the plan, Melo said after the en banc meeting with Smartmatic late Wednesday.

Despite assurances by the technical provider, Smartmatic and Total Information Management Corp. (Smartmatic-TIM), that it can deliver all reconfigured CF cards nationwide, Melo said he still wants to ensure there are other options if the shipment of CF cards is delayed.

“I’m hoping for the best. We are preparing just in case,” Melo said, adding that they do not consider a manual election yet as a second option.

Under the Omnibus Election Code, special elections can only be held once the poll body declares a failure of elections in a particular area.

The special elections must be conducted at the “earliest possible time” or within 30 days after the scheduled date of elections.

However, Melo said he is still hoping there will be no need to hold a special election and that all of the more than 50 million registered voters can all cast their votes in the historic first automated national polls on May 10.

The poll body is set to decide on the matter on Sunday, a day before the May 10 elections.

Monday’s nightmare

Last Monday, the PCOS machines malfunctioned in polling precincts in Batangas, Makati, Manila, Mandaluyong, Mindoro, Pateros and Quezon City during the testing and sealing procedures.

Smartmatic’s Flores said the problem is a simple “configuration error” of the CF cards inside the PCOS units, where the instructions for reading the shaded ovals representing the votes are embedded. The different printing format between pages 1 and 2 of the official ballot was blamed for the confusion, since the CF cards could only correctly read page 1 containing the national level slots, and not page 2 for the locals.

Comelec and Smartmatic then postponed the testing and sealing procedures and recalled all 76,000 CF cards nationwide.

Working overtime

So far, Flores said they have retrieved 13,500 compact flash cards from the pullout late Tuesday, and invited reporters to witness the “burning” of the CF cards in the reconfiguration at the Comelec warehouse in Laguna.

Flores said they expected to receive Thursday some 43,000 newly procured CF cards from Taiwan and Hong Kong; and they have 18,000 spare CF cards from the warehouse.

“We will have 61,000 brand-new cards. The rest we need to recycle from the ones we’re pulling out,” Flores said. Comelec and Smartmatic officials thanked Customs chief Napoleon Morales for helping them expedite the procurement of the CF cards from abroad.

“Since the election is just five days away, Customs would be in full force to immediately release the compact flash cards to avoid any delay,” said Morales.

The cargo has been classified as “express cargo” or a “priority.”

Unlike other air shipments that usually take three hours to process, Morales said it would only take them less than an hour to release the shipment to the Comelec.

They were reconfiguring 25,000 cards and as soon as they finish some, they will start shipping by batches to the more remote areas.

“We are preparing 25,000 cards so we start shipping tonight (Wednesday). By Friday (around noon) we can finish 76,000 cards,” he added.

On Friday morning, they will start shipping the CF cards to the National Capital Region (NCR) except for the cities in Makati, Mandaluyong, Marikina, Parañaque, Pateros and Quezon City.

As soon as the CF cards arrive, the Comelec can coordinate with election officers so the BEIs can resume the testing and sealing procedure.

Recapturing public trust

“We have to recapture the trust of the people in the machine and the candidates. That’s why tomorrow there will be testing all over Makati, Parañaque, Marikina, etc.,” Melo said.

Flores assured the public: “We are committed to pull this through, this is a feasible plan. There will be elections on May 10. We are designating all resources to this. We are not leaving the country. We will see this through until people of the Philippines can enjoy clean and accurate and fast elections on May 10.”

Earlier, Commissioner Larrazabal appealed to the public to “stop bickering and stop [sending] text brigades]” that aim to spread unfounded rumors that there will be a postponement of elections.

Reformat Business

AT least 24 compact flash (CF) cards an hour, or 576 cards in 24 hours, can be reconfigured, according to technology industry experts. For the two days that Smartmatic is seeking to do the reconfiguration for 76,000 CFs, at least 50 computers will be needed.

Smartmatic’s Cesar Flores had said the company had 75 stations set up (to be increased to 120 Wednesday night); and each station configures 40 CF cards per hour—meaning 3,000 can be reconfigured in an hour. The trick, therefore, is also to make sure the supply of CF cards keeps coming, to beat the deadline. Only 18,000 spare units were in the warehouse; 13,500 had been retrieved from the field as of Wednesday; 43,000 newly procured ones were due Thursday morning from Taiwan and Hong Kong.

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