SOMETIME in July, 2011 —my third month as Commissioner of the Commission on Elections — I asked its IT Director the question, “Kaya ba nating mag-develop ng sarili nating CCS?” (Do we have the capability to develop our own Consolidation and Canvassing System?”) The immediate reply was a pleasant surprise to me, “Oo naman, sir!” (“Absolutely, sir!”) I was actually half-expecting the common reply, which would be, “We’ll try, sir”. But no, she was so sure!
Smiling widely, I said, “Gawin natin!” (Let’s do it!). And so, after about a month of preparatory activities (engagement of two systems analysts from DOST, procurement of laptops, and other minor items), the team started the development on August 26, 2011.
But before I proceed with this story, perhaps a brief explanation is necessary. The Philippine election system basically consists of four phases: voting, precinct-counting, transport/transmission of precinct results, and consolidation/canvassing of such results. Generally, even when elections were still purely manual, the first three phases would only take a day, maybe two, for most precincts. On the other hand, when it was still manual, the fourth phase, the consolidation and canvassing, could take as long as forty days.
Automation cut down the canvassing to something like five days. In fact, theoretically, it can be cut down to one day, assuming no hitches in the transmission of results. I have to say this again, PCOS only cut down the time spent for the first three phases by half a day. Yet, PCOS cost the taxpayers P11.3 billion in 2010 and almost P9 billion in 2013; automation of consolidation and canvassing system (CCS) cost us less than half a billion, not including telecoms cost. Very few bad government IT projects would equal the Comelec’s when it comes to wasting taxpayer money!
Now, why did I want Comelec to develop its own CCS? Several reasons: (1) As explained above, CCS is independent from whatever system is used in precinct-counting. Whether it’s Optical Mark Recognition (OMR), like PCOS, Direct Recording Electronic (DRE) system, or even manual counting, they will use the same CCS. In fact, for as long as they all send their results to CCS in the same format, there won’t be any problem using all three technologies in the same election. Such being the case, it would be to Comelec’s advantage if it develops its own CCS and procures the canvassing equipment (laptops and servers) directly.
(2) CCS needed quite a few modifications for the 2013 elections, including the synchronization of the ARMM elections. Like any system, modifications will be needed again and again. It is best therefore NOT to be dependent on a vendor for this recurring need.
(3) Training on CCS would not be dependent on vendors.
(4) Then there’s the pride angle.Comelec’s IT Department would be able to prove that they are equal, if not better than the vendor’s foreign technical staff.
After discussing the system enhancements with the IT team, I disengaged myself from the project and almost forgot about it, until the IT Director came to my office on December 22, 2011 to tell me that they had finished the development and that only stress testing was left to be done. Wow(!), I thought. Not even three months.
Just to complete the picture, I asked the IT Director to check how much Comelec paid when it bought Smartmatic’s CCS for the 2008 ARMM elections. She went to Accounting, came back, then told me Comelec paid Php 58 million for it, including VAT. Then I asked her to compute how much they spent developing our own CCS. She came back after a few days and told me that they only spent Php 600,000. That confirmed my suspicion that we’d been had!
But I was very happy and very proud of our IT team. I talked about it in all the meetings that I attended at Comelec during the start of 2012. I also announced the good news during the following en banc meeting of the Commission.
And that was when the bomb was dropped! Chairman Brillantes said we could not use the Comelec-developed CCS … because it had not been used in a previous election exercise, as required by R.A. 9369. Unbelievable, isn’t it?!
R.A. 9369 says that the AES must use appropriate technology and that the system procured must have demonstrated capability and been successfully used in a prior electoral exercise, here or abroad. Fine … if it’s a new system.
Chairman Brillantes and I must have debated on this for an hour. I basically argued that there was nothing new in the system, or in the technology. It’s the same system and technology that were used in the 2008 and 2010 elections; the same system and technology used by most countries in their consolidation of election results. They mostly also use laptops and servers. All that the Comelec IT team did was write new computer programs for it. In fact, there was no procurement involved.
What does the system do anyway: It consolidates the precinct results at the municipality level; then it consolidates the municipal results at the provincial level; and finally, it consolidates the provincial results at the national level. Namfrel used to write a new set of such programs in every election (from 1984) where it ran a parallel count.
I also argued that when Smartmatic employed its CCS in 2008, it was unused in any other election. How come Comelec allowed its use? Ahh … selective enforcement of rules.
After an hour’s debate, on cue, one of the Commissioners called for a vote. As expected, the vote was 6-1. None of the others dared to contradict the chairman, even if obviously, he was wrong.
I’d like to play a little game with the readers: Let’s list down all the possible reasons why the chairman vetoed the use of the Comelec-developed CCS.
I’ll start with one: If I wanted to tamper with the results, it’s safer to ask the vendor (especially, if foreign) to do it for me because they will surely keep it a secret to protect itself. With Comelec personnel, I can never be sure.
If you can think of other possible reasons, please send them to the Opinion Section Editor of this paper (firstname.lastname@example.org).