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Electronic voting part 2: Are there loopholes to be guarded?
by Jane Cadalig

The conduct of the first automated elections in 2010 was both a thrilling and a disappointing exercise. The latter applies at least for individuals and groups who were not satisfied with how the technology performed or how the automated polls, in general, was implemented.

Three years after and amidst the various assessments, of which majority were antagonistic on the manner how the automated polls was conducted, how ready are the Filipino electorate and the concerned agencies for a second round of electronic voting and what should the public guard this time?

The 2010 automated polls>

It may be recalled skepticisms bugged the first automated elections even before it was implemented.

The most popular was the fear on the possible hacking of the Precinct Count Optical Scan (PCOS) machines, which could sabotage the entire political exercise.

No hacking was done, although technical glitches happened few days before the election.

One particular blooper was the inability of the PCOS machines to read and record accurately the votes from the sample ballots because the compact flash (CF) cards that were inserted to them had a wrongful software command.

Reconfiguration of the CF cards remedied the lapse and elections pushed through, nevertheless.

The CF card fiasco was only one of the lapses noted by various election watchdog groups and was the one closest to the fear that elections might fail due to technical problems.

There were other concerns.

The Center for People Empowerment in Governance (CenPeg), for example, in its assessment report on the 2010 elections, said the Board of Election Inspectors (BEIs) who manned the PCOS machines lacked training in handling the technology. CenPeg is one of the groups that initiated its own monitoring of the country’s automated elections.

It added even the PCOS machines technicians themselves lacked the expertise in troubleshooting problems incurred by the machines.

Amidst the various criticisms, skeptics could not discredit the speedy manner the votes were counted and transmitted to the Board of Canvassers, resulting in the swift proclamation of winners.

Up to this time, automated poll detractors could not substantiate their claims of electronic cheating, including among other things, assertions that the PCOS machines were loaded with already shaded ballots in favor of candidates who had the power to influence the election results.

Has automation really solved the problem on cheating?

The various groups and individuals who conducted their own assessments agreed automation eliminated human manipulation of the election results, foremost of which is the dagdag-bawas practice.

But these election watchdog groups and even the Commission on Elections admit automation has not totally rid the country of poll cheating.

What it assured was that the votes were counted and transmitted quickly.

Comelec-Cordillera Director Jose Nick Mendros shared these views.

He said fraud does not only refer to the dagdag-bawas incurred during the counting of votes.

“Poll cheating comes in all aspects, which cannot be solved solely by computerization. Cheating happens even before the election day,” he said.

Mendros was referring to the vulnerability of the electorate to the manipulations of political aspirants. Among these are the practice of buying and selling of votes, intimidation, harassment, and violence.

He said automation made it difficult for humans to manipulate election results, but the other forms of cheating can only be solved by the voters themselves and this is by exercising the power given them to choose the right individuals who will be ruling them.

How free are the PCOS machines from ‘pre-loading’?

Mendros said the claim that the PCOS machines can be fed with shaded ballots favoring particular candidates is not possible, unless one has an access to the programming of the CF cards, which is unlikely to happen given the tight security measures at the machines’ source of origin.

Also, the CF cards are sealed inside the PCOS machines. The security keys are inside the PCOS boxes that can only be opened by the BEI chair or his colleague on the day of the elections. PIN codes or the security keys are only known by the poll clerks when they open the PCOS machines boxes.

Another thing, although the ballots were already delivered to the municipal and city treasurers, these will only be delivered to the polling precincts on May 13, the day of the casting of votes. There are instances ballots are delivered a day earlier but this is only allowed in far-flung areas.

“How can it be possible then to feed the PCOS machines with shaded ballots earlier than election day?” Mendros said.

He said the Comelec is encouraging poll watchers to proceed to the voting precincts at the same time or earlier than the BEIs. This is so they could keep watch on the opening of the PCOS machine boxes and the ballots. Polling precincts open at 7 a.m. and closes at 7 p.m.

“But of course, they should take charge of their own transportation, especially those who are assigned in the remote polling centers,” Mendros said.

He said watchers and volunteers should understand that the logistics provided are enough for the BEIs and the security of the election paraphernalia.

Ensuring a safe and credible elections

Various frontline agencies have been doing their early preparations in the bid not only to ensure a peaceful and credible elections but also to improve and address the other lapses noted during the first electronic voting.

The Comelec held trainings for the BEIs from March 9 to 30. Aside from the BEIs, technical support groups were also trained. The technical support staff members will take charge of troubleshooting problems that will be incurred by the PCOS machines.

In the Cordillera, Mendros said 3,796 BEIs have been trained during the series of trainings. Those who failed certification by the Department of Science and Technology can still serve as BEI members.

Mendros said it is not necessary that all the three members of the BEI should be certified as IT-capable. “But at least two of them must be DOST certified,” he said.

The Board of Canvassers (BOCs) also had their training from March 3 to 7.

Mendros said re-trainings will be done but this will be at the municipal levels to refresh the BEIs, the technical support, and the BOCs.

To further ensure that there will be no technical glitches left unaddressed, Mendros said every town or city will have a PCOS technical supervisor.

This year, Mendros said the Comelec assumed the training of PCOS technicians to avoid what happened in 2010 when those hired to troubleshoot machine bog downs failed to resolve the problems.

“We had no control over the PCOS technicians then because it was Smartmatic that hired them. But this time, we assure technical problems will be fully attended to,” he said.

The Comelec has also been holding regular command conferences with the other frontline agencies, such as the Philippine National Police and the Armed Forces of the Philippines to ensure everything is in place and secured for the 2013 automated polls.

Deployment of the PCOS machines

As of press time, Mendros said the delivery of the PCOS machines to the warehouse hubs is 94 percent complete. He said the hubs are the warehouses designated for the provinces. These warehouses were designated based on the safety and proximity of these areas to the localities where they will be delivered.

The deployment of the PCOS machines to the polling precincts will start by April 30. The final testing and sealing (FTS) of these will be on May 6.

The FTS is done to ensure that the machines are functional. During the FTS, at least 10 ballots will be fed in the PCOS machines and election returns will be printed to ensure that the machine reads the markings in ballots accurately. After the dry run, they will be reconfigured so that the PCOS machines will go back to zero votes.

“The watchers will have to make sure that the PCOS machines indicate zero votes. They should not allow the first ballot to be fed into the machine if it already contains a figure,” Mendros said.

Challenge to security

The security challenge will be greater once the machines are delivered to the polling precincts, according to Mendros.

Police Regional Officer Cordillera Director Benjamin Magalong said the office will deploy personnel in all polling centers to secure the PCOS machines.

There are 1,828 clustered precincts located in 1,359 voting centers in the region.

Mendros said the frontline agencies are on top of the situation and are implementing measures to ensure that the lapses during the first automated elections will not happen the second time around.

The greatest loophole

The Cordillera has its own share of the challenges facing this major political exercise, including among other things, the difficulty of bringing the election paraphernalia to areas with rugged terrains and the challenge on the safety of this

technology and the people who will be manning this.

Mendros said while the automated elections is confronted by various challenges, the greatest loophole the voters should be vigilant against and should not allow to happen is the vulnerability of the electorate to submit to the manipulation of individuals who resort to dirty tactics just to gain power.

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