There is not enough time to reliably and effectively test the electronic voting machines that will be used in next year’s general elections in the Philippines. So says Dr Pablo Manalastas, IT consultant for the Center for People Empowerment in Governance (CenPEG), a policy think tank that has been pushing for the source code of the voting machines to be released ahead of the polls on May 10th next year.
In an interview with FutureGov, Dr Manalastas accused the Commission on Elections (Comelec) and Smartmatic-Total Information Management, the vendor consortium that won the contract three months ago, of using delaying tactics to avoid releasing the source code, which he says is necessary to trial the technology and ultimately ensure a fair election.
Dr Manalastas insists that a copy of the source code should have been released as soon as the technology was selected, but CenPEG’s request to review the code, though initially granted by Comelec, has not yet been met.
“We are being told that the programme is being customised for the Philippines, so can’t be released yet. But it is the data that needs to be tailored, not the programme itself. We have a suspicion that the winning vendors might not have the proper source code.”
Dr Manalastas also said that the voting technology, known as precinct count optical scan (PCOS) machines, is too error prone for the Philippines’ first fully automated elections to run smoothly and securely.
“The failure rate of between two and 10 per cent is just too high. This will mean that of the 80,000 machines that will be used in the field, up to one in 10 could break down,” he said.
Another criticism he levels at the technology is that it is not good at reading votes. On most demonstrations seen on television and in the field, Dr Manalastas noted that the machines can only read fully shaded marks and distinct crosses.
Comelec Commissioner Lucenito Tagle told FutureGov that glitches in the automated election process are inevitable and concedes that no technology is perfect. However, he added that he is plenty of time to trial the machines adequately before next year’s elections.
“We believe we have chosen technology that will answer all the doubts of CenPEG,” he said. “The source code will be released once we have configured the machines. But the machines have not arrived yet.”
The delay has been caused by a petition filed by the Concerned Citizens Movement demanding that payment to the winning vendor consortium be withheld. The group claims that the consortium failed to completely disclose in the joint venture agreement the conditions of the partnership.
Commissioner Tagle said that the source code should be fully customised by November, by which time it will be available for a third party review by an “established international certification entity”.
The review is expected to be completed by February 2010, three months before the elections get underway.
“We need to test the machines three times before they are ready for action, but we are confident that we have enough time to test the technology sufficiently,” he said.
Tagle pointed to the amount of time that will be saved by using the PCOS machines and the main reason for choosing automation to begin with.
“We have been voting using paper since 1907. In the Philippines, the saying goes that there are only winners and those who have been cheated. The automation of the elections is a big step towards leveling the playing field.”
Getting an election result used to take one month, but is expected to take just 48 hours if automation goes smoothly.
“What we need is speed,” said Tagle. “The longer the process takes, the greater the opportunity for fraud and other irregularities when votes are transferred from the voting booths back to Comelec for counting.”
Digital signatures will be used to verify the identity of voters and elections inspectors at polling booths, while 40,000 trained IT professionals will be deployed to ensure voters use the technology correctly.
Some spare machines will be available, and batteries supplied in case of power outages. Commissioner Tagle said that a massive educational campaign using TV, radio, outdoor advertising, SMS and sample ballots will launch soon to instruct Filipinos how to use the machines.
Lilia Guillermo is the Deputy Commissioner and CIO of the Bureau of Internal Revenue, and a member of the Comelec Advisory Council. She said: “We showed that automation could be done in [the southern region of] Mindanao, where automation was trialed. People were anxious about using the technology to begin with, but the trial was completed in two days as planned.“
“I am confident that full automation will go ahead. If we don’t automate now, maybe we never will. We know we will have transition problems, but at least we will start to see a reduction in the cheating that has plagued this country for so long.”
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