Wednesday, January 27, 2021

Time to change Automated Election Law


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Part 1
EVER wondered how our Automated Election System (AES) law was enacted in 1997?

It all started in the late 1980s when the Commission on Elections (Comelec) attempted to automate our national and local elections using the available technology then. Such initiative didn’t flourish. So, a delegation composed of Comelec officials and IT experts sometime in the early 1990s went to the United States to figure out the best technology that would best fit our local setting. In short, what they found were counting machines using optical mark recognition (OMR) technology that were quite similar to PCOS machines. They envisioned to use one counting machine for every counting center or public school. It was recommended and later became the basis for the acquisition of around 50 counting machines intended for its pilot test run in the 1996 ARMM elections. According to Comelec, it was an overwhelming success!

Hence, the OMR technology was lobbied in Congress with Comelec’s view in mind that it was high time that the Philippines automated the national and local elections in 1998. Hence, the first version of the AES law, or Republic Act 8436, was enacted in 1987. However, automation of 1998 elections didn’t materialize for several reasons, one of them being the infamous “lack of time.” Fortunately, ARMM was again the area where the acquired OMR machines, plus some more units, were used for the second time.

If we look back on the details about some of the features of the counting machines as stipulated in Section7 of RA 8436, you might ask why the lawmakers allowed it, to wit:

— The printer must have at least 128 kilobytes of random access memory (RAM) to facilitate the expeditious processing of the printing of the consolidated reports;

— The machine must have a built-in floppy disk drive in order to save the processed data on a diskette;

— The ballot paper for the OMR counting machine must be of the quality that passed the international standard like ISO-1831, JIS-X- 9004 or its equivalent for optical character recognition;

— The optical mark reader must have a built-in printer for numbering the counted ballots and also for printing the individual precinct number on the counted ballots;

— The ballot feeder must be automatic;

— The machine must be able to count from 100 to 150 ballots per minute;

— The machine must have an uninterrupted power supply (UPS).

You may notice that the features enumerated are actually the specifications of the counting machines available at the time. And when biddings were conducted then, the terms of reference would surely show the required specs, like 128 kilobytes RAM, diskette, etc. And interested bidder would normally conform or even offer higher specifications. By the way, the Government Procurement Reform Act, or RA 9184, was not yet enacted at that time.

Unfortunately, Comelec failed to implement the AES law in the 2001 midterm elections. Again, Comelec reasoned that they tried their best but there was no more time to do it — “lack of time.”

During the first quarter of 2003, Comelec announced the winning bidder to supply the 1,991 OMR counting machines (a.k.a., automated counting machines or ACMs) for the 2004 presidential elections. RA 9184 was already enacted then.

To ensure that Comelec could automate the 2004 national and local elections and implement it successfully, in July 2003 they tapped IT experts who had extensive experience in implementing humongous IT projects. Countless meetings were held involving representatives from the Senate, House of Representatives, Department of Science and Technology (DoST), IT associations and academe. Action plans were quickly laid down and numerous tests were conducted at the premises of DoST.

Come January 2004, all the preparations and test activities were stopped by the Supreme Court because a petition claiming that the bidding had been flawed and the machines delivered were technically defective. Hence, the goal of automating the 2004 elections was again not realized by the Comelec. That was the third attempt. First was in 1998, then in 2001 and 2004.

In 2006, IT associations led by the Philippine Computer Society (PCS), diligently reviewed RA 8436 to possibly amend it in time for the 2010 presidential elections. It was noticed by PCS that RA 8436 was already obsolete. In their meetings, they noticed that the law could still be improved and recommended taking away those technical specifications, like 128 kilobytes RAM, diskettes, etc. Several inputs were deliberated on, like the use of digital signatures, the conduct of source code review, adoption of continuity plan like the implementation of disaster recovery procedures, etc. It was brainstormed that automation should not be limited to the use of OMR technology; hence, the direct recording electronic or touch screen technology was introduced. Thus, RA 8436 was amended as RA 9369 in 2007.

Four salient points provided in RA 9369 are the following:

— Sections 22 and 25: The election returns/certificates of canvass transmitted electronically and digitally signed shall be considered as official election results and shall be used as the basis for the proclamation of a winning candidate.

— Section 33: Joint congressional oversight committee. The oversight committee shall conduct a mandatory review of this Act every 12 months from the date of the last regular national or local elections.

— Section 37: Rules and Regulations. The Commission shall promulgate rules and regulation for the implementation and enforcement of this Act.

Since the amendment of RA 8436 in 2007, were these salient points complied with by Comelec? A big NO!!! Will they comply in the 2019 elections? What’s the stand of the Congress?

(To be continued)



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