COMELEC plans to perpetuate an error by Gus Lagman

The COMELEC has declared that the May 10, 2010 automated elections using PCOS was successful, although it did admit that the process could stand some improvement.  A recent SWS survey showed that some 70% of Filipinos were happy about the way automation of the last elections was implemented.  That, of course, is the public’s perception and not a technical opinion.  In fact, most IT professionals, with the exception of the COMELEC’s Advisory Council and Smartmatic’s technical staff, are of a contrary opinion.

So, without going into technical details, let us analyze whether the 2010 automated elections was truly successful, as COMELEC claims; or not, as IT professionals maintain? Let’s consider just two issues: speed and accuracy.

On speed. President Noynoy Aquino was proclaimed on June 9, 2010, or 30 days from the May 10, 2010 elections.  Not bad.  But wait; former President Joseph Estrada was proclaimed on May 30, 1998, or only 19 days after the May 11, 1998 elections! Much, much better.  And the country did not have to waste P11.3 billion to automate that electoral exercise.

In both instances, there were no big disputes regarding the outcome of the presidential election.  In both instances, the voting public readily accepted the results.  What was common to these two electoral fights?  They were both landslide victories.  This factor then appears to be the key to quick acceptable results.  Just look at the close contest in this year’s vice-presidential race.  A formal protest has even been filed.

But the P11.3 billion was not the only expense that we could have saved ourselves from.  The country also did not have to suffer many months of anxiety over the strong possibility of failed elections – anxiety that started the moment COMELEC awarded the automation contract to Smartmatic-TIM.  Consider the following occurrences:  TIM attempting to divorce itself from the joint venture agreement with Smartmatic;  wires catching fire during the first public system testing;  failure of the communication system during the dry runs conducted by Smartmatic;  delay in the delivery of the machines, caused to a certain extent by the transfer of manufacturing from Taiwan to Shanghai;  delay in the order and delivery of ballot boxes;  delay in the printing of ballots;  discovery of errors in the CF cards one week before election day (extremely unforgivable!).  If one would write a post-evaluation report on the project, a most appropriate title would be “How not to implement a project”.

Surely, we don’t want to experience this kind of anxiety on such an important political exercise as elections, ever again.

On accuracy. The Random Manual Audit (RMA), done on a very small sampling of the precincts, but which took many weeks to complete … no, I should say, which took many weeks before a report would be released to the public, showed an accuracy rate of 99.6%.  That does not meet the mandated 99.995% accuracy rate.  But even the claimed 99.6% rate is questionable.  No explanation was given as to the methodology used in computing that rate, which led some IT people to conclude that the RMA was a sham.

And then, there are the null votes – 1.5 million and 2.6 million votes in the presidential and vice-presidential positions, respectively.  If the reason for these null votes is the inability of PCOS to read some marks, then that’s a form of disenfranchisement – something that would be negligible in manual voting and manual precinct counting (only when handwritten votes are completely illegible).

Because precinct counting is not public, because the audit is unreliable, and because this COMELEC is by far the most non-transparent since we regained our democracy in 1986, we are not sure if those who won, really won and those who lost, really lost, except in those cases when all pre-election surveys and exit polls support the results.

Not content with the monumental problems the COMELEC encountered during the implementation of the PCOS system and perhaps deluded by the seemingly successful outcome, the COMELEC now wants to purchase the machines! It’s bad enough that it made the wrong choice of technology, it now wants to perpetuate the error by buying the machines!

Why does COMELEC want to buy the machines?  Because, according to some commissioners, the COMELEC only needs to pay 30% of the purchase price.  One commissioner even went as far as saying that the machines are being offered at a 70% discount.

According to COMELEC, the lease-purchase agreement provides that it has the option up to December, 2010 to buy the machines at 30% of the purchase price.  Of course!  The rental price in the previous contract is roughly 70% of the purchase price.  That’s the P7.2 billion that we, the taxpayers, paid.

Why shouldn’t COMELEC purchase the PCOS machines?  First, it’s not the most appropriate technology for Philippine elections.  (Personalities in the local IT industry are willing to debate this issue with the COMELEC, its Advisory Council, Smartmatic, and their supporters in the leadership of the PPCRV.)  Second, and this is perhaps the least important, new technology may render PCOS obsolete in the next three years.  Third, repair of the machines after three years of non-use may prove costly.  Fourth, and most important, warehousing these machines would be very expensive.

Let me expound on the last one.  Remember the Mega-Pacific machines that the COMELEC bought in 2003?  The COMELEC has been paying for their storage cost because after more than six years and despite the Supreme Court order, it has not succeeded in returning the machines to the supplier.  Years ago, I was told that the COMELEC was spending P3.9 million annually for the rental of the warehouse.  About two months ago, a reporter who researched on it told me that the COMELEC is, as it turns out, paying P220 per square meter rental (not air-conditioned), or a total of P29 million a year!

That’s only for 1,991 units.  If the COMELEC therefore were to purchase the 82,200 PCOS machines, and assuming the same per square meter cost, then we, the taxpayers, courtesy of the COMELEC, would be paying almost P1.2 billion a year, or P3.5 billion every three years,  just to warehouse them.  Little wonder why Smartmatic has been pressuring COMELEC to purchase the machines.  It’s Smartmatic-TIM who’s paying for the warehousing right now.

This is only one of the issues that the COMELEC does not talk about.  There are many more.

This article appears in the Opinion pages of the August 31, 2010 issue of BusinessWorld.

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