Automated election lemons


According to Wikipedia’s definition, a car or a product that is found defective after being bought due to numerous, severe issues can be termed as a “lemon.” It can drive and function as a car but it can only do so with repairs, hacks or repeated maintenance. In some countries, consumers are protected by legislation where purchasers can be compensated for these failing products.

Bringing back our focus to the recently concluded midterm elections, there were widespread reports of precinct count optical machines (PCOS) failing in one way or another. The Comelec itself acknowledged that it has replaced more than 200 such machines all throughout the country. Chairman Brillantes and Smartmatic tried to put a positive spin on this by saying that the number of machines that were replaced were smaller than last 2010.

During election day, more than 60 percent of the reports that we received in Kontra Daya were reports of various failures of the PCOS machine. In Artiche, Eastern Samar, for example, the PCOS machine in Brgy. Mac Arthur rejected all the ballots. Similar problems on ballots not being read were also reported in many places over the country such as those in Rizal, Aurora, Bulacan, Batangas, Pampanga, Quezon Province, Sorsogon, Ilocos Sur, Cavite, Laguna, Panay, Puerto Princesa, Santiago City, Baguio, Masbate, Compostela Valley, Surigao del Sur, Iligan, Davao Oriental and in Manila, Quezon City, Taguig, Marikina, Caloocan, Pasig and Muntinlupa.

Other problems encountered in other places include ballot paper jams, defective PCOS memory cards (both the backup and main memory cards), overheating PCOS machines and some machines not turning on properly or shutting down unexpectedly. Local Board of Election Inspectors (BEI) had to be creative in solving some problems such as using broomsticks to push ballots in to make room for new ones. Most just allowed voters to fill-in their votes without reading these into the PCOS machine.

There were also other problems such as discrepancies in the master list of voters from the actual list of voters in the voting room which left many unable to cast their votes. Ballots assigned to Benguet found their way into precincts in Compostela Valley. Kontra Daya poll watchers also noted the use of a PCOS machines assigned to a different clustered precinct. Some municipalities and barangays also experienced power outages.

These problems as well as the PCOS failures aggravated the long queues in many parts of the country. In an earlier study that we made, polling precincts larger than 600 can experience queues that will run up until the closing of the elections. These queues were evident in many places but some were avoided since a lot of those who arrived to vote opted not to proceed anymore when they saw the long lines.

These problems did not end at 7:00 pm on election day. Transmission problems continue as of Wednesday afternoon with only around 69.19% (or 54,084 out of 78,166 election returns) counted. The slow crawl of the tallies in the partial unofficial counts of the news networks reflect the continuing problem of transmitting the results either to problems in the modem, in the cellular signal or the PCOS machine malfunctioning itself.

Worse, during early evening of election day, questionable results at the PPCRV-KBP’s transparency server were discovered when it flashed on national television a numerically improbable total of more than 10 million votes for the top senatorial spot as it tallied only 1,418 precincts. The error is significant, as a maximum of 1,000 voters per precinct should only yield a total of around 1,418,000 maximum votes.

The PPCRV-KBP later corrected this number and pointed the mistake to a wrong script that added incorrectly the results sent to it by the PCOS machines. Smartmatic changed the script to show the supposed correct figure. The whole episode shows how Smartmatic (or anyone for that matter) can change the codes that tally the results at will—even during election day. Without the benefit of public disclosure of the Smartmatic AES source code and thorough pre-testing, these statistically wrong results put the whole canvassing of votes into serious question.

The PCOS machines and the whole Smartmatic automated election system has failed us again. Comelec tried to make the elections work only through ad-hoc adjustments and fixes. Taxpayers paid P1.8 billion for these PCOS machines which had failed in 2010 and have not been shown to work correctly even now.

Using our definition above, these PCOS machines are lemons.

Elections should have been one way to exercise sovereign will and citizenship in this supposed democracy of ours. What we are seeing is a wholesale surrender of our electoral system by the Comelec to a foreign and private firm, Smartmatic. The continuing problem of elite dominance and the use of guns, goons and gold in our political system is aggravated by these PCOS automated lemons.

We should not use these machines in 2016. The Comelec and its foreign and private partner Smartmatic should be held accountable for undermining the country’s elections through their deeply flawed automated election system.

Dr. Tapang is a convenor of Kontra Daya and the chairman of Advocates of Science and Technology for the People.


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