Business Mirror: Smartmatic briefs media on counting machines

Phillipines, 05 November 2009.- OPEN, close, print, transmit: This is how the president of Smartmatic simplified the functions of his company's apparatus which will make (or break) the nation's hope for automated elections.

Staff of the Business Mirror and Philippines Graphic magazine experienced automated voting firsthand on Wednesday as Smartmatic, the winning bidder for the automation of the 2010 elections, brought its counting system for a demonstration.The briefing was meant to demonstrate the capabilities of Smartmatic's Precinct Count Optical Scanner (PCOS), a paper-based automated election system (AES) slated to be used for next May's historic elections.Despite the confidence reposed in it by the Comelec and lawmakers who sponsored the law mandating nationally automated polls, the private consortium is battling doomsayers spouting 'failure of election' and cheating scenarios. That the fear is wide may be gleaned from a survey done by independent think tank IBON, revealed this week, indicating about half of voters still see fraud 'possible' despite the hopes promised by automation in a country known for notoriously slow, manipulated counts in past manual elections.Cesar Flores Zavarce, Smartmatic president for  Asian Operations, conceded that voters are 'apprehensive' about the automation. He said that voters 'still don't know what automation means' which he blamed for a 'certain lack of information.' Still, he and his colleagues are confident that a good voter education campaign could save the day for all.'You don't need to know technology to vote,' Zavarce said.  'It works like the old system,' he explained, 'the only difference is that the machine reads the ballots.'The new system requires voters to shade ovals that correspond to a particular candidate. 'It's like filling out lotto,' he said. Names of the candidates are 'pre-printed' into the ballot. Each precinct will get a specific type of ballot with local officials of that specific area printed on one page, and national candidates on the reverse page.Zavarce, however, noted that the design and length of the ballots can change. One thing that will remain unchanged is their security features. Each ballot will use UV inks and each will contain a unique barcode. The machine will need to identify the features before it reads and verifies a vote. Zavarce explained that trying to feed the machine with a fake ballot (for instance, a photocopied ballot), or trying to use a ballot from a different precinct will not work. 'It will spit it back,' he said.The machine will refuse ballots that are not properly filled. In the demonstration, one voter tried to use different marks instead of properly filling out the ovals. The machine rejected the ballot. Zavarce, however, noted that 'over-voting,' or exceeding the number of marks for a specific contest or column (say, the race for councilors or senators, where multiple slots are up for grabs), will only invalidate that contest; not the whole ballot. Zavarce explained that this feature leaves no room for ambiguity, or for the machine to 'interpret' the voter's wish'the machine would not know which of the 13 names in the 'Senate' column were the first 12 ones shaded; hence, it will simply invalidate the voter's choices for that particular contest.Contingency for breakdownsZavarce also dispelled fears of machines breaking down all at the same time during elections, which according to him is a 'statistical impossibility.' But he also admitted that machine breakdowns are expected. For this reason, he explained, only 80,136 of the total number of 82,200 PCOS ordered will be distributed to precincts. The rest will be used for replacements. At any rate, should automation fail completely, manual election could still push through by manual counting, where the 47 million ballots printed for the PCOS can still be used. In effect, the beauty of this election is that it has one system [automated] 'built on top of the other [manual].' According to Zavarce, this was done to 'mitigate the fears of failures of election.'After the votes are cast, a BEI (Board of Election Inspectors) member will lock the machine. Election returns (ER) can be instantly generated directly through the machine and transmitted to the Comelec website. Results can be viewed through the website, where they can be compared with the hardcopy of the ERs.Thus, someone with one of the eight copies of ERs printed by the machine can verify if the website accurately reflects the vote.Hacking next to impossibleZavarce addressed issues on hacking into the system. He said the PCOS will be 'offline the whole duration of the voting process' and will only be online for a short time during the transmission process. 'The hackers have 2 minutes [maximum] to attack,' he said, noting the impossibility of cracking an encrypted piece of information in a very small window of time, when transmission from thousands of points would be quite random.In the end, says Smartmatic spokesman Gene Gregorio, the exercise would hinge greatly on a good voter education campaign. Voters must be encouraged to remember three simple things: first, do your own codigo or sample ballot so you don't waste time, and don't have to keep counting how many names you've shaded for columns in the ballot (say, for senator) requiring multiple replies'the voter must just look at the instruction at the top of each column, which says how many names must be picked for a particular position. Second, shade properly so that all votes are read by the machine. Last, don't 'overvote' (or shade more than the maximum names for each position, e.g. shading 13 names for senator when only 12 are at stake). All the safeguards in the world and no amount of planning for contingency would suffice, it seems, without the will to make something work. We'll see.