Several of my friends asked me what my assessment was about the conduct of the May 10, 2010 elections. I have always answered thus:
I am very happy that Manila started receiving the data not long after the polls closed and that the result of the presidential elections was resolved early. That was truly amazing and almost unbelievable!
Nonetheless, I still maintain my original position that the technology chosen by the Comelec had a high probability of failure and that, because counting was not public, it would be easy to automate wholesale cheating. That neither seemed to have happened in the last elections does not mean that these statements are no longer true.
This is the reason why when asked during a TV talk show midnight of election day if I were willing to “eat my words”, I unhesitatingly said, “No, of course not!”
Why didn’t it fail? First, the teachers, who were the members of the Boards of Election Inspectors (BEI), performed extremely well. Theirs was a Herculean task, fraught with all kinds of problems, yet they delivered. We truly must salute them. Second, the voters were determined to make the system work. They so wanted their voices to be heard, their votes to be counted, that they stayed on despite the very long queues at the precincts. I definitely subscribe to Conrad de Quiros’ interpretation of this current political situation as being an EDSA masquerading as an election. And third, a large logistics company with a wide geographic coverage came in the last minute, to help deliver more than 50% of the PCOS machines and later, the re-configured CF cards.
And what about wholesale cheating, did it happen? No doubt it could have happened. What saved the day for us was the large margin of Noynoy Aquino in the surveys. There was no way the public would have accepted contrary results. If only for this, there’s reason to keep running those surveys. Without them, any result would have to be accepted, no matter how disappointing, for there wouldn’t be any basis for contradicting it and launching protest action. (Even Cory Aquino needed a basis for claiming victory during the snap elections. That was the Namfrel count.)
An incontrovertible proof that wholesale cheating could have happened and that it’s far easier to launch such, is the fiasco that happened on May 3, 2010. Smartmatic had to replace all the CF cards because they were not counting the votes correctly. (Meaning ALL 76,300 machines were corrupted.) This would not have been discovered had those 350 (according to some reports) PCOS machines not been tested on that day. An intentionally embedded “cheating program” would have been more difficult to detect as it could “hide” itself during testing.
While there are some people who have congratulated the Comelec and Smartmatic, I definitely will not do so. In fact, I would demand that they explain to the Filipino people the following:
- Why didn’t the Comelec make the source code “immediately” available to political parties and groups, as R.A. 9369 mandates? Why did they pay Systest Labs P72 million and give them more than four months to review the code, yet would only give the local experts, who were going to do the review for free, only three months? And why all the restrictions on the said review? It’s no wonder the local IT experts “walked away” from the effort.
- The Systest Labs report was submitted to the Comelec in February. Why wasn’t the report released to the public soon after? The unofficial copy that many somehow received showed many shortcomings in the Smartmatic system that should have prevented its being certified.
- Why did Comelec allow Smartmatic to generate all the BEI electronic signatures without giving the teachers an option to change them? This gave Smartmatic ready access to all the PCOS machines, even from a remote area.
- Why weren’t the PCOS and CF cards tested much earlier? Major errors that threaten the success and credibility of elections should not happen ONE WEEK before elections. How sure are we that all CF cards were replaced? Was the reconfiguration of the cards done in the presence of qualified watchers?
- What did Comelec/Smartmatic do with the erroneous CF cards? They have evidential value and should be subjected to forensic review.
- Why did the Comelec canvass the president and vice-president results? According to our Constitution, only Congress can perform that function, even as private entities are allowed to do unofficial counts. All the commissioners are lawyers and should know about this specific provision. They were more than halfway done when they realized this and that was the only time they stopped.
- The random manual audit was supposed to have started immediately after the precinct count. How come the results have yet to be released one week after the elections?
- The voter turn-out, according to the Comelec, was around 75%. That’s 5-10% short of expectations. This translates to 2.5 to 5 million voters who, because of inefficient precinct clustering, might have been disenfranchised. That’s way too high!
- The Comelec said that PCOS would prevent traditional ways of cheating, like ballot box switching. But there are a lot of talks now that there might have been CF card switching, something that’s obviously much easier to do, considering its size.
- In a meeting a few weeks before the elections, Commissioner Larrazabal mentioned that most of the P4.1 billion, that is the difference between the approved budget of P11.3 billion and Smartmatic’s quote of P7.2 billion, have likewise been spent. Comelec should make these expenses public. Was it a case of awarding a contract to a lowest bidder, only to grant additional contracts to that same bidder later?
No, I’m not about to exonerate the Comelec and Smartmatic of wrongdoing. As a friend said, “flying a plane with technical issues and landing it safely, does not make the pilot or the airline free from liability.” And they certainly owe the Filipino people an explanation to the above questions.
We were plain lucky. The election results were generally credible … despite the Comelec! But it was a costly system — not only in terms of money (P7.2 billion), but also in terms of voting secrecy, which was sacrificed, and public counting, which was ignored.
Gus Lagman is a convenor of the Movement for Good Governance, lead convenor of TransparentElections.Org. Ph, former president of Information Technology Foundation of the Philippines (ITFP), former president of Philippine Computer Society (CSP), and former Technology Chief of NAMFREL.