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Sunday, February 23, 2020

Junk Smartmatic!

 

LITO AVERIA

AND rejoice they did. This was the reaction of critics of Smartmatic and its automated election system following President Duterte’s suggestion to the Commission on Elections (Comelec) to “dispose” of Smartmatic. But the Comelec was quick to douse the jubilation, saying that it needed a legal basis to sever ties with Smartmatic.

The 2019 midterm elections marked the fourth time that the Smartmatic-supplied technology was used in the country, each time attended by problems.


In 2010, thousands of Compact Flash (CF) cards that held clustered precinct and ballot configuration had to be recalled and replaced a week before the elections. The problem was uncovered during the conduct of the final testing and sealing activity as the vote counting machines, then called PCOS, did not record and count votes for the local contest correctly. There was also a problem with determining the genuineness of the ballot as the machines failed to detect the ultraviolet ink marks. Handheld ultraviolet ink mark scanners were hurriedly procured. The system also incorrectly summed up the number of registered voters. The automated election system showed about 150 million registered voters at the Comelec national canvassing center, while the national canvassing center in Congress displayed 250 million registered voters.

In 2013, the source code of the system was not reviewed. As in 2010, digital signing by the members of the board of Election inspectors and the board of canvassers was not implemented. The Comelec justified the implementation of the machine digital signature saying that the law, Republic Act 9369, which amended RA 8436 and the Omnibus Election Code, among others, did not specify who would sign the election returns and certificates of canvass. But then, in case questions of authenticity and due execution of any election returns or certificates of canvassed were raised, the machines cannot be asked!

Smartmatic had a rift with Dominion Voting Systems (DVS), the author, owner and licensor of the software used in the PCOS. Smartmatic had to enter into an agreement with DVS prior to the 2010 national and local elections because it did not have the required programs for the optical mark recognition (OMR)-based vote counting machines, the Comelec technology of choice. What it had experience in was the direct recording electronic (DRE) technology which basically used touch screen through which voters made their choices.

In 2016, Smartmatic introduced a new version of the vote counting machine, junking the term PCOS and simply calling the new machines VCM. Learning from the DVS-owned software, Smartmatic had written its own software for use with the VCM. It made last-minute changes to the VCM software configuration, following the decision by the Supreme Court ordering the Comelec to have the voter verified paper audit trail (VVPAT), better known as the “resibo,” printed out. The VVPAT is security feature that is supposed assure voters that the VCM correctly registered the voters’ choices. Does it? The PCOS machines used in 2010 and 2013 never printed the VVPAT.

Controversy arose when Smartmatic’s Marlon Garcia introduced a script in the transparency server to correctly display the Spanish letter “ñ” while the system was in live operations, receiving election returns from the thousands of VCMs. The act led to allegations of vote manipulation.

The 2019 midterm election was not without problems. VCM malfunctioning and SD card (the data storage device used with the VCMs) corruption were observed and reported during the final testing and sealing activity and on election day. Voters in affected clustered precincts stood in line, waiting for the problems to be resolved or for the VCMs and/or SD cards to be replaced. Some of the voters chose to leave, giving up the opportunity to vote.

The worrisome problem was the seven-hour data outage in the transparency server. After sending out the first batch of election returns equivalent to 0.38 percent of all expected election returns, the transparency server fell silent. Several pronouncements were made: “data pocket (the correct term is ‘packet data’) problem”, “java error,” “nabulunan (choked).” No official explanation on the problem encountered and its underlying cause has been released as of this writing.

Fear, uncertainty, doubt. Stakeholders feared election results manipulation. Stakeholders were uncertain what was going on — for seven long hours stakeholders waited but not one commissioner faced the public to explain what was happening. Some stakeholders doubted the integrity and credibility of the election results.

Comelec’s technical people, with technical support from Smartmatic, explained that the transparency server was not broadcasting the election returns to various recipients, those directly connected to the transparency server and the others who were receiving their copies via the media server. Without determining what the real problem was and its root cause, the programs in the transparency server were restarted or reset after the Comelec personnel first showed to observers that elections returns were received by the transparency server. Broadcasting of election returns, or the version reprocessed by the transparency server into comma separated values (CSV), resumed shortly after 1 a.m. with more than 90 percent of all expected election returns delivered in the second batch.

And that’s another problem. Why isn’t the automated election system set up to deliver the election returns as generated and transmitted by the VCMs? Why did the Comelec allow the election returns to be reformatted into CSV?

Each national election since 2010 has been plagued with problems. Isn’t this enough reason to simply junk Smartmatic and its system?

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