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Voting:
The Electronic Way
by Jane Cadalig

This year’s polls will require the electorate to master the art of shading and to learn to be good at memorizing their bets’ corresponding numbers in the ballots.

At the same time, political aspirants should realize that campaign sorties are no longer confined to merely discussing one’s platforms, but now call for the inclusion of voter’s education – a duty that has long been disregarded in favor of political mudslinging.

The implementation of Republic Act 9369 or the Automated Election System (AES) will bring various changes to the country’s balloting process. Use of the Precinct Count Optical Scan (PCOS) machines will put to test how far this country could hold on to its assertion as an Information Technology (IT)-capable nation.

Various reactions greeted the decision to finally implement the AES in this year’s political exercise. Some were receptive, saying it’s about time for the Philippines to embrace electronic voting. Others are willing but apprehensive, doubting the nation’s IT readiness and due to lack of awareness on how the automation works. But the most notorious are those reluctant to change who resort to generating misinformation only to sow confusion and harass efforts to modernize the country’s electoral process.

But amidst the challenges, the law must be implemented. Poll automation advocates say the implementation of RA 9369 is long overdue. The law was passed in December 1997 and should have been implemented during the synchronized national and local elections on May 11, 1998. Lack of time, however, barred the Commission on Elections to implement the automation.

Information and education campaign and IT certification

The Comelec is now doing the rounds to educate the public on the automated polls.

In the Cordillera, the information and education campaign (IEC) on automated voting started late last year. Discussions cum demonstration on how the PCOS machines work were initiated, with the aim of readying the region’s 898,696 voters for a modernized balloting.

These IEC initiatives clarified one of the major misconceptions that makes the public hesitant on accepting electronic balloting – that the voters themselves will operate the PCOS machines.

Comelec regional director Atty. Julius Torres said voters should not be bothered on how to manipulate the PCOS machines because this job will be left to the Board of Election Inspectors (BEIs).

“What the voters need to perfect is the proper shading of the ovals that correspond to the names of their chosen candidates and how to feed the ballot to the PCOS. The BEIs will be the ones operating the machines,” he said.

This is the reason public school teachers had to undergo and pass the intensive training on the PCOS machine. There are now 3,386 IT-capable BEIs all over the region who were certified by the Department of Science and Technology.

DOST regional director Ben Ladilad said the region’s passing rate was posted at 95.6 percent. There were 3,542 public school teachers who underwent the IT certification process.

Comelec’s Torres however said those who failed the DOST certification will not be totally removed as members of the BEIs.

“The law provides that at least two of the three-member BEI are IT-capable,” he said.

PCOS operation and test ballots

The region’s lone PCOS machine is going around the pro-vinces for demonstration purposes. Mock elections are done, albeit on a limited basis, allowing the voters a hands-on experience on how to vote, the electronic way.

Torres said PCOS demonstration is already complete in Baguio City, Benguet, and Ifugao. It was also sent to Abra and Apayao recently. The provinces of Kalinga and Mountain Province have yet to test the PCOS machines.

There will be 1,783 PCOS machines that will be deployed in the various clustered precincts all over the region. One machine will be used in one clustered precinct, which should have at least 1,000 registered voters.

Test ballots are also currently circulated to give the electorate an idea on how to do the shading.

Torres said the size of the test ballots, which is 8.5 by 25 inches, will be the same as the official ballots that will be used come May 10.

Names appearing on the test ballots, however, are not those of the official candidates. These were merely printed for sampling purposes. Voters are encouraged to bring with them their lists on the day of the election to serve as their guide and facilitate their voting.

Entries from the party-list down to the councilors are arranged alphabetically and vertically. Torres, however, said names of the presidential bets will be arranged horizontally in the actual ballots. (Note that these are listed vertically in the test ballots).

“There had been issues raised against the arrangement of names for the presidential position that is why these will be arranged horizontally in the official ballots,” he said.

The Comelec has been cautioning the voters to be precise in shading the ovals corresponding to their chosen candidates.
Over-shading or under-shading the egg-shaped figure will invalidate the choice because the PCOS machine would not be able to scan the mis-shaded oval.

For lone positions – president, vice president, party-list, congressman, governor, vice governor, mayor, and vice mayor – the public is encouraged to shade only one oval. Shading more than one oval invalidates the vote for such position.

Exact number of shaded oval is also a must for posts like senator, board members, and councilors. Over-voting for these positions will also render the choices invalid.

One cannot make additional marks, erasures, or mistakes as this could invalidate the whole ballot.

Opportunities amidst the challenges

The automated voting, Torres said, will give the electoral process a break from the snail paced counting and canvassing. At least at the local level, results will be known early morning after the elections are held, he said.

“There will no longer be issues on dagdag-bawas or vote rigging since there will be no human interventions,” Torres said.

Atty. Ceasar Oracion, dean of the St. Louis University’s College of Law, views the automated polls as a way of ridding the nation from dirty politics. Through the automated voting, Oracion said there will be no elbowroom for politicians to manipulate election results – a problem that had long bugged this country’s election canvassing. “Political opportunists will be sidelined,” he added.

He also said it is high time Philippine balloting goes automated. “It is about time that we have the automated voting. We have been among the few countries doing manual elections and have long suffered from its greatest drawback – the very long wait on who have won,” he said.

But Oracion said the biggest challenge remains, and this is the possibility of a systems breakdown. He said manual counting, or even voting, should never be disregarded, especially since technical glitches were already experienced during the automated polls for Overseas Filipino Workers in Hongkong and Singapore.

“We have seen how technical errors delayed the voting of the OFWs abroad. Imagine the long queue of voters who waited several hours for the PCOS breakdown to be remedied. We should anticipate this and be ready if this thing happens here in the Philippines,” he said.

Oracion, however said technical errors would not dictate a failure of elections, reason why he maintains that a parallel manual count is a must.

“We cannot allow a failure of elections. Mahirap isipin. There will be social upheaval if this happens,” he said.

The lawyer said that while the country struggles to modernize its electoral process, only the voters could bring forth genuine change.

“No matter how we try to modernize our electoral process if we do not put the right people into office, we will never experience good governance and we will never progress,” he said.

The May 2010 polls, being the first in the country’s history, will serve as an opportunity for government institutions to gain back public trust, by ensuring that indeed, this modernization of the balloting is free from any form of fraud.

This will also serve as a wake-up call for the electorate to do their part. While the Comelec, joined by several other sectors, are doing their best to educate the public on how to accomplish their respective ballots, it is the voters’ obligation to also prove that this nation’s electorate is IT-ready.

The opportunity that comes with this major change in the voting system should be maximized by both the government and its people.
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