Wednesday, April 18, 2012

COMELEC TAKES STAND ON AES

At this point in time, a prelude to the May 13, 2013 National and Local Elections, election Automation is at the verge of question and submission.

I still remember, when the Commission on Elections initially introduced the automation of the May 10, 2010 elections utilizing the PCOS technology numerous groups and personalities gang up the Comelec and Smartmatic-TIM. The opposition apprehensions and fears for the technology even result to a petition also filed with the Supreme Court seeking to put a halt to poll automation.

But when the cloud that shrouds the May 10, 2010 electoral exercise was over said groups and personalities were proven all wrong after the 2010 elections have been widely praised as generally successful, not only by most Filipinos but also by the international community.

The lawyer of the group known as Concerned Citizens Movement (CCM) said, “The elections, despite our worse apprehensions, did not fail." The “credit should be given to both the Comelec and Smartmatic-TIM for this triumph of democracy. As we have repeatedly stated, we would be more than happy if history were to prove us wrong. And by God, we’re absolutely thrilled," he said.

A noted columnist also offered his apologies to Comelec, saying “I was wrong about the automation, I was wrong about the Comelec commissioners, I was wrong about Jose Melo, I was wrong about Smartmatic. And, boy, am I absolutely ecstatic to be so. They did a fantastic job despite an un-fantastic past. I owe them my deepest apologies.” 

The manual auditing conducted by the Parish Pastoral Council for Responsible Voting (PPCRV) showed that the May 10 elections—the country’s first national automated polls—were 99.6% accurate. According to PPCRV Chairperson Henrietta de Villa, there were minor discrepancies discovered but it was due to “clerical” errors and "mathematical errors" or wrong computations by the Board of Election Inspectors (BEI).

The House Committee on Suffrage and Electoral Reforms who conducted a hearing on electoral complaints regarding the AES, headed by Makati Representative Teddyboy Locsin, called the May 2010 automated elections a “mixed success,” saying that while the technology used was successful, “sporadic cheating” still occurred.
 
And because of the positive outcome of the 2010 automated election process Commission on Elections Chairman Jose A. R. Melo expressed confidently that, “It is a very encouraging report. It means that the machines worked 99 percent”. He further exclaimed that “Automation is here to stay. As long as we have the money, we will automate.”

Meanwhile, when Chairman Melo was asked regarding the automation of the forthcoming May 13, 2013 election he replied that even if the Comelec and the people want automation it all “depend on the Congress and the President.” Because, “if Congress doesn’t appropriate money”, the Comelec can’t do nothing.

To realize the automation of the May 13, 2013 National and Local Elections the Commission on Elections had proposed a budget of P10 billion for the said political exercise, but Congress only gave P7 billion. This practically has tied up the hands of the Commission on its financial resources. Thereby, it has to adopt measures and option that would augment the appropriated money.  

Due to limited funding allocated by Congress the Comelec opted to take advantage of the "low" cost of acquiring the machines under the purchase option from Smartmatic. The 82,000 PCOS machines including the software for the Automated Election System (AES) technology and a new Consolidation and Canvassing System at a discounted 1.8 billion worth. It is probably the right and best way to deal with the limited time frame and the 30% cut in its budget. For Chairman Sixto S. Brilliantes, Jr. it would be the most prudent and practical alternative for the poll body.

But in the midst of the situation the ghost of apprehension, fears and opposition resurrects to go off the course of the Comelec and people’s desire for a continuous automated elections. The very essence of Republic Act No. 9369 which authorized the use of automated election system in pursuit of modernizing the election system of the country. 

Lately, mostly self-styled election reform activists and some election upright groups filed a petition urging the Supreme Court to stop or to cancel the Comelec PCOS purchase citing legal technicality. The petitioner said, “It is, therefore, evident that Comelec’s exercise of the expired Option to Purchase, despite acceptance of Smartmatic’s offer of extension is, with due respect, tantamount to giving the winning bidder, after its contract ended, a benefit that was not known and available to all bidders during the bidding for the 2010 AES,” the group said. The Comelec decision is “clearly dubious maneuverings of a private company to avoid the strict requirements of Philippine procurement and bidding laws.” The group added that the Comelec entered the contract with Smartmatic-TIM despite “incontrovertible findings of glitches, malfunctions, bugs and defects of the PCOS machines.” This move of the group would derail and gave a hard time for the Comelec ongoing preparation for the May 13, 2013 elections.

Let’s look and consider whether the Comelec committed grave abuse of discretion when Chairman Sixto S. Brillantes, Jr. and the four other commissioners, Commissioners Rene V. Sarmiento, Lucenito N. Tagle, Armando C. Velasco and Elias R. Yusoph, in agreement decided to purchase and reuse the already tried and tested PCOS technology. Commissioners Christian Robert S. Lim and Augusto C. Lagman dissented from the majority decision.

Atty. Romulo Macalintal a noted ‘election’ lawyer stressed that IT experts must respect the poll body’s choice because it has the authority to decide whether or not to buy and reuse the PCOS machines. “Only the Comelec has the constitutional mandate to enforce and employ all means necessary to ensure a clean and honest election,” he said. Accordingly, “only the Comelec has the recognized expertise on matters relating to the use of machines and instruments to carry out its functions, in which the Supreme Court or any other agency cannot intervene.Atty. Macalintal is in accord with the majority decision of Comelec Commissioners.

With regards to the bidding "benefits" that the 2010 AES was not known and available to all bidders? Comelec spokesman James Jimenez writes, “The invitation to apply for eligibility, and to bid for the automated election system, elicited positive responses from the following corporations: Smartmatic International Corp. and Total Information Management Corp.; Avante International Technology Inc.; Syrex Corp./Scantron; Data Voting System/Samsung; Universal Storefront Services Corp.-Sequoia; Indra Sistemas S.A.; All Data Hub International Inc.; Gilat Satellite Network Ltd.; AMA Group Holdings Corp.-Election System & Software; and Mega Data Corp.”

“Of these 10, only seven went on to submit their sealed bids on May 4, 2009, and none of them represented homegrown talent. Although they all had local partners—as Smartmatic does—these seven offered election solutions that were based on technology that came from nearly everywhere but the Philippines: the United States, for instance; Spain and Israel.”

“Apart from that, there is also the law to contend with. Republic Act 9369 clearly states that the system to be procured “must have demonstrated capability and been successfully used in a prior electoral exercise here or abroad.” Which only means that, even if the Comelec did conduct a public bidding for the automated election system to be used in 2013, the chances of a Filipino-developed solution to even qualify for bidding would not be all that great since it would not have the “demonstrated capability” called for by the law.” A transparent transaction, indeed!

Spokesman Jimenez continues, “About a couple of weeks ago, one of the most vocal oppositors” the Kontra Daya 2010 group comprising the AES Watch “to the Comelec’s purchase of the PCOS grudgingly admitted that the offer had, in fact, been extended”. “Inexplicably, despite this admission, he has clung to his allegation of expiration. Since the group does not seem disposed to believe the Comelec’s repeated debunking of that claim, perhaps they can be persuaded by one who stands with them in opposition to the Comelec decision.”

In the issue of the incontrovertible findings of glitches, malfunctions, bugs and defects of the PCOS machines.  Again, Atty. Romulo Macalintal also said in no uncertain terms: “The complaints of some IT experts against PCOS pertain merely to technical defects which have not been proven to have affected the accuracy of the ballot counts and consolidation of results in the election returns and certificates of canvass. This is the reason no election protest involving the PCOS count has ever progressed at the Comelec, the House of Representatives Electoral Tribunal or trial courts”.”

Admittedly, PPCRV Chairperson Henrietta de Villa said, there were minor discrepancies discovered but it was due to “clerical” errors and "mathematical errors" or wrong computations by the Board of Election Inspectors (BEI).

Both Chairman Brilliantes and Smartmatic head Cezar Flores reiterated that "The system has complied with the mandates of the law," Mr. Flores said. Mr. Brillantes agreed, adding that most of the alleged glitches were due to "human error and not to machine error."

To sum it up most of alleged glitches, malfunctions, bugs and defects of the PCOS machine are mainly due to human error rather than a technical or system error.

In a Comelec statement it says that the Smartmatic has already corrected all these reported glitches and defects in the system. These corrective measures were done when the Comelec prepared for the elections in the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (ARMM) in August last year but which were subsequently aborted by a Congress-approved law. The ARMM polls have been synchronized with the May 2013 midterm elections.

As part of the preparation for the 2013 elections the Comelec assured the people that Smartmatic is making corrections to eliminate “deficiencies” in the machines that were recorded in 2010. Mr. Cesar Flores of Smartmatic said the Comelec, when it availed of its option to buy the PCOS machines, asked for Smartmatic to include new features, improvements and enhancements. With the improved features and changes in safeguards in PCOS machines against tamper and fraud as required by Comelec, Flores declared they are ready for our country’s next automated elections. “The system is auditable, secure and accurate,” Flores added.

In justifying the decision for “option to purchase” Comelec Chairman Sixto Brillantes said getting the machines at a huge discount removed the headache of sourcing funds for the 2013 elections.

Commissioner Rene Sarmiento said that aside from the familiarity of the voters with the machines, they also considered the limited budget of the Commission on Elections. “We decided to buy the machines for practical reasons. It is much cheaper [and] PCOS was proven effective,” Sarmiento said. They approved the decision to acquire the machines since they were satisfied with the action taken by Smartmatic in correcting the problems they encountered in the 2010 national and local polls. 

This only shows that the Comelec stands pat on PCOS technology? “There are things that can be improved, not all those things have to do with PCOS machines, it’s important that we know what really can be improved through technology, what can be improved through better project management and better education and other areas that are not technology related,” Smartmatic-Asia President Cesar Flores said.

Former Comelec Chairman Jose A. R. Melo admitted that there is “vast room for improvement” on the part of Comelec. “We have to improve to make it almost error-free, criticism-free, we can improve in terms of our education program, the instruction of voters. Like the digital signatures—not so many people understood that system that’s why we need an information drive.”

Likewise, former Comelec Commissioner Gregorio Larrazabal, who is now External Vice President of the Parish Pastoral Council for Responsible Voting (PPCRV), said “information is key to the success of the next elections. Information dissemination, letting people know what has been done, what is to be done, and what will happen in 2013 to allay the concerns of some people," he explained.

Just like what happened in May 10, 2010 National and Local Elections, criticism and opposition on every sides, which make Commissioner Gregorio Larrazabal and Smartmatic President Cesar Flores an instant celebrities on print and broadcast media, the Commission on Elections takes stand in continuously making history for Philippine Automated Election System and in making May 13, 2013 National and Local Elections automated.

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VOTERS' PLEDGE

I am a Responsible and Principled Citizen.

I will educate myself and others about the issues at hand so that my vote is a meaningful and relevant exercise of my right of suffrage.

I pledge to vote for candidates who will abide by the duly constituted rules on campaigning because I understand that those who refuse to obey the law in the little things are not likely to obey the law in the more important things;

I pledge to vote for candidates who, by word and action, renounce violence, coercion, vote-buying, and corruption as means for getting elected;

I pledge to vote for the candidates who listen to their constituents and are responsive to the needs and aspirations of those they seek to represent;

I pledge to vote as my conscience dictates in all elections.

I make these promises freely and upon my honor.

(This Voter Pledge was read at the Unity Walk of 13 January 2013, by COMELEC Commissioner Elias R. Yusoph)

SOURCE: NAMFREL