Does Smartmatic’s PCOS add value or problems to our elections? by Gus Lagman

I’ve often wondered whether the Commission on Elections (COMELEC) ever asked itself the following question: Why do we want to automate our elections?

To my mind, the reasons are:

  1. To improve the ACCURACY of the counting of votes and tabulation of results
  2. To eliminate, or at least minimize, CHEATING
  3. To make the process more, not less, TRANSPARENT to the public
  4. To SPEED up the process

I intentionally put “speed” last because it obviously is the least important among the four. What’s the sense in coming up with quick results if they’re not accurate? Or, if the process were not transparent? To the wise, this is truly a “no-brainer”.

Let us now test Smartmatic’s PCOS (Precinct Count Optical Scan) against these four criteria.

ACCURACY

  • No mock election conducted by Smartmatic has produced an accuracy rate of 99.995% or better.
  • The Random Manual Audit (RMA) conducted after the 2010 National and Local Elections resulted in only a 99.6% accuracy rate, despite the very lenient methodology used.
  • The July 24-25, 2012 mock elections in Congress resulted in only a 97.215% accuracy rate.
  • No official report yet on the last mock elections, though the general feeling is that it could be worse.
  • During the 2010 elections, there were Final Testing and Sealing results that were erroneously transmitted for canvassing.

(The Terms of Reference, or TOR, require a 99.995% accuracy rate. This translates to an allowable error rate of only ONE mark per 20,000 marks. 99.6% translates to 80 errors per 20,000 marks; 97.215% translates to 557 errors per 20,000 marks.)

Did it, will it, prevent CHEATING?

  • The cases of Glenn Chong in Biliran, Josie dela Cruz in Bulacan, Grace Padaca in Isabela appear to prove the opposite.
  • The CF cards found in the garbage dump in Cagayan de Oro prove the ease by which the cards could be stolen.
  • The 60 PCOS machines found in the house of a Smartmatic technician in Antipolo right after the elections prove that even the machines themselves could be hi-jacked.
  • In 2010, there was an open port in PCOS. Through an open port, a techie with a laptop can connect to the unit and tamper with the software and the CF cards in the machine.
  • There are many stories going around today about offers of sure wins through manipulated results.
  • Forget about external hacking, but truly, Smartmatic’s system is very vulnerable to internal tampering.

TRANSPARENCY

  • Transparency is completely lost when precinct counting is automated (this is the reason why Germany, The Netherlands, Ireland, and some counties in the US went back to manual precinct counting).
  • We don’t know if our ballots were read properly and our votes counted accurately.
  • There was no source code review, as mandated by law. Despite requests, public documents were also not made available to stakeholders.
  • The incomplete data in Comelec’s public website made it next to impossible to check the accuracy of canvassing.
  • Comelec has been very secretive about its plans and how it is implementing them.

SPEED

  • Results in 2010 were fast … so fast that Comelec was announcing partial results on the presidential fight as early as 6:00pm of election day – one hour before the close of voting – clearly a violation of election rules.
  • Comelec was also not supposed to canvass the presidential and vice-presidential contests; only Congress could do that function – clearly, another violation, this time, of the Constitution.
  • At any rate, the results were readily accepted by the public because it was a landslide victory.
  • Because of that, PCOS was acclaimed to have been successful, but wait …
  • P-Noy was officially proclaimed June 9, 2010; Erap was officially proclaimed May 29, 1998 (the 1998 election was completely manual).
  • The key to speedy results, therefore, is not PCOS, but a landslide victory!

What is PCOS’ impact on our election processes?

  • Filing of Certificates of Candidacy had to be scheduled earlier because the names are pre-printed on the ballots.
  • And because of this, we have to contend with a long and expensive ballot.
  • Secrecy of the voting is compromised because of the very long ballot.
  • Now that the COMELEC has bought them, it has to worry about the expensive warehousing of the PCOS machines (Comelec asked for a budget of P400 million, just for warehousing!).
  • The COMELEC also has to maintain the units and this is a major and very serious concern.
  • There is the danger of automated cheating, which, if done by an insider, is easier and more effective than cheating in the manual system.
  • PCOS needs an army of technical support people.
  • We have unnecessarily relied too much on a foreign vendor – one with a questionable reputation.
  • Our elections have become vulnerable to vendor problems (Smartmatic vs Dominion).
  • COMELEC has to face accusations of incompetence and violations of the law coming from lawyers, politicians, and the IT community.
  • COMELEChad to budget almost P9 billion in additional expenses! (P11.3 billion in 2010).
  • Transparency is lost!

All these problems that COMELEC has to confront, plus additional expenses in the billions … and FOR WHAT?!

To cut down the election process by 12-24 hours!

That’s all! Generally, manual precinct counting only takes 5-12 hours. On the other hand, manual canvassing can take 25-40 days! And contrary to what some politicians, COMELEC officials, and media people keep harping on, it is in canvassing that dagdag-bawas occurs. Not in precinct counting. Lawyers are also not allowed to delay counting at the precincts. If canvassing is automated, like in 2010, lawyers would not be able to delay the process with pre-proclamation protests.

That’s why since 2008,TransparentElections.org has been saying that we should automate the canvassing and transmit the results electronically, while keeping the precinct counting manual.

To be able to transmit the Election Returns (ER) electronically, they have to be encoded using PCs and/or laptops. This exercise takes only 7-15 minutes per ER. (We’ve done “time and motion” studies on this.) Including the printing, the visual checking, the re-encoding, and an iteration of these steps, it might take 1-2 hours. Surely, less than the very conservative total of 24 hours for counting and encoding that I am allowing above.

Won’t the BEI (the teachers) complain that they have to stay longer than they did in 2010? With so much savings from the non-use of PCOS, COMELEC can double, even triple, the allowances of the teachers to compensate for the longer hours.

At this point, what should the COMELEC do?

  1. It should shift to its contingency (continuity) plan, which I hope includes: a) the transparent manual precinct counting; b) electronic transmission; and c) automated canvassing. There is still time for this, but they should not delay it, then later say (again!) that it’s too late.
  2. It should put more focus on the telecommunications problems. There were far too many transmission failures in 2010.
  3. COMELEC should stop lawyering for Smartmatic (and negotiating directly with Dominion) and instead ask its lawyers how it can return the purchased PCOS and recover the money that have been paid. Considering the many significant pieces of information that were not revealed when the purchase of the machines were being negotiated, there may be more than enough justification for legally cancelling the contract.

Let’s strengthen our democracy. Let’s conduct our elections the clean, honest, transparent, and accurate way!

This paper was quoted by Jarius Bondoc almost verbatim in his March 8 column in the Philippine Star.

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