PCOS-based system glitches this late in the game?


According to the newspapers, the Comelec is considering conducting another round of mock elections in a bid to improve the voting process and FIX THE GLITCHES that attended the dry run held during the previous weekend. The contract with Smartmatic was signed many months ago; plus, this vendor has had the experience of two elections. How come they haven’t fixed these glitches at this time—less than 90 days before elections?

And how come Smartmatic is not being asked by Comelec to explain these glitches? Why is the Commission so forgiving? For that matter, why hasn’t this foreign vendor explained the problems encountered (and fortunately for us, discovered) during the 2013 elections?

Let’s compare how Comelec reacted to the mock election results conducted by Filipino IT practitioners in June, 2015. It said that PATaS (Precinct Automated Tallying System), developed by TransparentElections.org.ph, a group comprised of Filipino volunteers, was not ready. It said further that, it can however be considered for the 2019 elections.

The Comelec’s only complaint was that the precinct-counting took long. But of course! It was manual counting after all. The Commissioners present should have expected that. What was worse was that they didn’t consider the fact that the major delay in the counting was caused mainly by lawyers who couldn’t understand very simple explanations about the procedure. That led us to suspect that those lawyers were planted precisely to delay the process.

A 7-page report, submitted a few days later, proposed very practical steps that would shorten the counting process (to as much as one-half the time it took during the past manual elections), make it even more transparent and more accurate. Surely, the system would have been perfected by this time.

There was a minor problem from the printer (it was borrowed and quite old) but that was fixed in five minutes. Really minor. A congressman, who obviously didn’t understand what was going on, made such a big thing out of it. Oh, boy!

In contrast, what problems were encountered during the mock elections conducted the other weekend on the PCOS system? Let me enumerate them as reported in the newspapers.

Transmission problems – as early as 2014, we suggested to the Comelec that it should attend to this immediately as this can be a tough problem to solve. In 2010, 9% of the PCOS machines failed to transmit the results; in 2013, 23% failed. According to the papers yesterday, Comelec was happy that 37 out of the 40 clustered precincts were able to transmit results within two hours after the voting ended; PATaS, during the mock elections last year, only took two minutes. And that was in Bacoor, where Smartmatic could not transmit in 2010 and 2013!

The proper shading of the ballot, the correct placements by the members of the Board of Election Inspectors (BEI), and the right way to feed the ballot into the machines apparently still poses a problem in this election. This can mean disenfranchisement of some voters, which problem also existed in past PCOS-based elections. The bad news is that this is an inherent characteristic of (or risk in) this technology.

In some of the precincts, voters took more than 10 minutes to cast their ballots. The risk here is that this occurrence can be used by some candidates to delay voting in precincts which are the bailiwicks of their opponents.

There is only one root cause of these problems and others that were not revealed during that mock election (like ballot printing, possible CF card switching, loss of transparency, etc.) – and that is the use of PCOS. Remove PCOS and all of those problems (except for the transmission, which nonetheless can be partially reduced) would disappear. That’s why we are hoping that this would be the last elections where PCOS would be used.

In the newspaper reports, the name of Smartmatic is hardly mentioned, or is not mentioned at all. Does it mean that Comelec is, wittingly or unwittingly, shielding them from the public and media eyes? That it doesn’t mind taking the blame for failures? Hmm …

Not only is the Comelec inconsistent in analyzing systems (biased against Filipino IT practitioners); it is also allowing itself to be blamed for defects that the foreign vendor should answer for. Tsk, tsk …

Another important point: In 2011, when I was still in the Commission, I tasked the Comelec’s IT group to develop a Canvassing and Consolidation System (CCS). They did it in three months! All that was needed was to do “stress testing” on the system and it would be ready. We were all very proud of this accomplishment.

However, when we discussed it during the en banc meeting, then Comelec Chief Brillantes said we couldn’t use it. His reason was that the software was untried and untested. If that were so, I said, then Smartmatic’s CCS was also untried and untested. We debated on it for about an hour, and when a vote was called, as I expected, it was six against one. I was the lone supporter of that Comelec-developed CCS. Sayang!

Now, let’s take a look at the system that will be used in 2016.

The new version of the Election Management System (EMS) is untried and untested; the new version of CCS is untried and untested; the PCOS hardware is a new model and therefore untried and untested; the PCOS software is untried and untested. So, why is the Comelec allowing this? Have the rules changed?

I hope answers are forthcoming.


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