It’s not Asean, BBL, CCT, GDP, PNP-SAF or SWS. Sure, the nation should fret about the challenge of economic integration in the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, pros and cons of the Bangsamoro Basic Law, and the massive and unexplained P6.5-billion cut in conditional cash transfer stipends for millions of poor families last year.
Plus translating gross domestic product growth into more jobs and income, truth and accountability in the Mamasapano massacre of 44 Philippine National Police Special Action Force commandos, and the gyrating survey ratings for President Benigno Aquino 3rd and aspiring presidentiables in Social Weather Stations and other opinion polls.
But more important for democracy and development is one four-letter acronym: PCOS.
Hang on, some might retort, how can the Precinct Count Optical Scan system for automated vote counting and canvassing be more important than Asean integration and GDP growth, which affect millions of present and future jobs; or BBL, which could spark “a very bloody war” if not passed, as chief government peace negotiator Miriam Coronel-Ferrer warns?
Yes, PCOS does not directly add or subtract jobs from the economy, silence or spark shooting and bombing, deliver or deny money for the poor, and sway public opinion on national leaders. But if it fails to accurately reflect the sovereign will of the electorate, Filipinos suffer in all these areas and more.
If computerized cheating undermines the power of constituents to choose leaders, then the latter have little incentive to work for the former’s betterment. If automated anomalies rob elections of credibility and make it hard to replace misruling rulers, then sectors seeking change may resort to violence. And if voter preferences are not reflected in electronic tallies, what’s the point of polls?
The problem is transparency
The Commission on Elections and its citizens arm, Parish Pastoral Council for Responsible Voting, insist PCOS works. They are now conducting talks for PPCRV groups in diocesan centers to address issues raised by critics. At the recent Cubao diocese session, attended by this writer, no less than PPCRV Chairperson Ambassador Henrietta de Villa, Comelec spokesperson James Jimenez, and Ateneo computer science professor and Comelec adviser John Paul Vergara argued for the system.
Information technology experts like Philippine Computer Society president Edmundo Casiño and University of the Philippines president Alfredo Pascual, along with seasoned columnists, including Jarius Bondoc, Bobit Avila and Professor Rene Azurin, have detailed PCOS problems.
These failings include: dispensing with digital signatures required by law and needed to verify transmitted election results, failure to adequately review source codes, use of rewritable memory chips instead of write-only cards required by law, and random manual audits that did not follow procedures. In 2013, precincts subject to RMA were announced three days ahead, alerting any fraudsters to avoid those sites.
So who’s right — Comelec and PPCRV or PCOS opponents? In fact, few Filipinos have the technical knowledge to understand and assess the highly technical arguments for or against the system, or even to see for themselves how it actually works. And that’s exactly the problem with PCOS: ordinary citizens cannot see for themselves whether and how their votes are counted and canvassed. We just have to take it all on faith.
This is truly “hocus-PCOS” — results come out like magic with the public never knowing how exactly it happens. And as noted, hardly any can verify whether the system actually performs as advertised, or validate the arguments supporting or opposing it.
Such a lack of basic transparency led Germany’s Federal Supreme Court to ban the country’s own automated system in 2009, four years after its first use. Despite that nation’s advanced technological capabilities and educational levels, its justices decided that the computerized process did not satisfy the requirement that elections be public and transparent to ordinary citizens.
There’s another problem with PCOS: it requires so many safeguards, including highly technical or impractical ones. The Philippine Election Code allowing automated polls mandated, among other do’s and don’ts, digital signatures, source code review, and RMA. All three were never properly implemented. Comelec’s technical advisers added 30 measures to address PCOS concerns. How many were actually done?
Believing vs. seeing
The most important national issue then is this: Do we again cling to the belief that 100,000-plus machines are counting votes and transmitting results properly, with no way of verifying that for ourselves and despite countless safeguards set aside? Or do we insist on our constitutional right to vote and have our vote counted and canvassed in a manner we can check for ourselves?
If we pick the latter option of full vote canvassing transparency, there is thankfully a system that can do just that, and at far less cost than PCOS.
Computer expert and former Comelec commissioner Gus Lagman and other suffrage advocates have long urged keeping precinct counts manual and open to public scrutiny, but using electronic means to transmit results and make them accessible to the public. Their proposal involves sending data via the Internet and posting scanned copies of verified election returns on an impregnably secured website. Then everyone can check if votes tallied at canvassing centers match verified election returns visible online.
This simple system — manual count and online transmission and posting, all subject to public monitoring and checking — would address the source of nearly all election fraud — “dagdag-bawas” in the transmission and canvassing of results — while keeping the entire process from ballot tabulation to final canvassing open to all eyes, expert or not. All for P2 billion or so, not the tens of billions spent on PCOS.
In just over a year, we will either be left hoping again that machines correctly count our votes, or, if Congress mandates it, see this done for ourselves as our choices are tallied by hand, with results sent by secure communications and posted for public verification on the Web.
The mode chosen will decide the future of Philippine democracy.