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The Manila Times: First big test of 2010: Automated elections

Manila, 04 January 2010

BY YEN MAKABENTA EDITORIAL CONSULTANT

Let us pause a moment, take a deep breath and consider what is the single most important test the nation must hurdle in order to have a fair chance of success in 2010 and beyond. Some will say that it is electing the right person?their preferred presidential candidate naturally?as the 14th president of the Republic. Dedicated critics of GMA will swear that it is ensuring that she steps down.

And then there are the economic managers and businessmen whose top priority is to get the economy back on track and our fiscal house in order.

These interesting choices notwithstanding, I believe the single most important act that the nation must perform this year is holding successfully the first automated national elections in history. Before the questions who will lead us and what policies he will pursue in office, there is the how of the election process. The conduct of the balloting in the automated manner prescribed by law takes precedence over the ambitions and agendas of candidates, parties and groups.

In past national elections, the matter of system was a routine.

However, messy, bloody and prolonged our election system, there was method to the madness.

Vital but worrisome
In the coming May elections, the system being new is of surpassing import and concern. Important because the elections will be computerized for the first time from the voting to the tabulation of the votes. Worrisome because we are all nervous about whether this major experiment will boost or bust our democracy.

In some respects, election automation has been so heavily debated that anything less than success would be a setback. But it also manifest that this is reform whose time has come.

The chaos of past elections the kilometric ballots, the irregularities committed and the prolonged manual canvassing of votes overwhelmingly argued for the adoption of computerization in some form or other.

The fact that other nations, developed and developing alike, long ago adopted automation underscored the backwardness of our election system, even as we continued to boast of being the first democracy in Asia.

When Congress finally passed the Election Automation Act in 2006, many hailed it as a turning point for our democracy. Sen. Richard Gordon, its principal author, described it as a potential game-changer in Philippine electoral politics. With the right technology and proper use, automation would cut sharply the extent of cheating in national and local elections. Politicians would have to change their methods for buying votes and controlling voters.

For his part, Commission on Elections (Comelec) Chairman Jose Melo said, ?The automation of the 2010 national elections signals the beginning of a massive transformational phase in the electoral system of the Philippines.

''We are finally moving away from the known flaws and weaknesses of the old ways of doing things and towards an automated election system that promises a speedy and accurate count, a highly efficient reporting mechanism that democratizes the count and canvass of election results, and most importantly, the extinction of dagdag-bawas.''

To much of this, the public generally agrees, according to surveys. Most believe that automation will make the Philippines a much better and more credible democracy.

Critics of automation
For all the hosannas, however, there are those who obdurately oppose election automation?and they seem to only get louder as Election Day nears. The broadsides seem to be coming from three groups.

First, there are the politicians like Sen. Francis Escudero who opposed the reform in the halls of Congress, and remain unconvinced up to now that automation will work in the country.

They cite all sorts of procedural objections, but at bottom they fundamentally believe that automation will only make it easier for entrenched groups to manipulate the election results. Where cheating was laborious in the old manual system, it now becomes possible by merely punching a computer key. No amount of safeguards in the automated election system will dissuade them from their grim prognosis.

A second group of critics are those, who while conceding that election computerization would be beneficial, oppose the system adopted because it does not conform to what they had prescribed.

In this group are the losing bidders, computer executives, former Comelec officials and information-communications technology (ICT) professionals who think only they can make election automation work in our midst. They have written lengthy papers describing how the automation program will fail. From the fevered sniping, one detects the haunting fear that election automation might just work in May and leave them without an issue to kick around anymore.

Finally, there are the risk analysts and think tanks who are taking the automation program and our government to task because the contract was awarded to a Venezuelan company that is not a member of their milieu and had the temerity to submit a bid much, much lower than the Western bidders. They generally just quote the critiques of the first two groups. But they add solemnly that the Philippine government and the Comelec simply do not have the knowledge or capability to manage a major project like the Automated Election System.

Some of these criticisms are valid and deserve attention. But it is profoundly disturbing that their main objective is not to improve the automation program, but to abort and obstruct it. Again and again, they intone that the Philippines should not attempt automation because we do not have the knowledge and experience for it, because we do not have enough professionals to make it work, because the safeguards are not perfect, because brownouts could mar the balloting?in short, anything that they can think of in the way of derailing the project.

The demand for perfection in our election automation system rings hollow considering that perfection exists nowhere in the world, not even in the United States. The jury is still out on all automation technologies and machines. But in the meantime democracies are using them to manage their elections.

Critics of the Philippine automation system increasingly sound like people who have run out of ideas and energy for dealing with challenges before the nation.

Where reforms begin
The hard reality is that the nation wants to leap forward into a new system for conducting our periodic elections. Except for those politicians who have a vested interest in keeping our electoral processes backward, we are all sick and tired of the electoral spectacles that make us laughable before the world and disfigure our earnest aspirations for genuine democracy.

Another postponement of the implementation of the Election Automation Law is unacceptable. We need this change to happen now; never mind if the system is not perfect the first time we try it. Better to brave the dangers of adopting election automation technology than not try to make a change at all.

At its core, the automation program will do two things. First, it will speed up the voting process because voters will just blot out, not write down, the names of candidates they're voting for. Second, it will speed up the tabulation of votes by automatically recording and adding up the votes, and sending them to Comelec centers for collation.

Within 24 hours after the vote, the nation will know who won the presidency in 2010?as well as other winning candidates for national and local offices. For this alone, if for nothing else, this bold experiment in election technology is worth the gamble. And no problem, real or imagined, should dissuade us from trying to make it happen.

While the critics have been busy shooting at every possible wrinkle, the automation program has slowly raised confidence that targets will be met. Smartmatic-TIM started delivery of the Precinct Count Optical Scan Machines (PCOS) on December 30 as the year 2009 was coming to a close. The 7,200 machines delivered fell short of the 42,000 promised for December, but there is assurance that production has been stabilized in China, and Smartmatic would be able to deliver all 82,000 machines needed for the elections ahead of the February 21 deadline.

Also, Comelec has started its voter?s education drive, using 200 machines earlier delivered. And the poll body has issued the guidelines for the hiring of 240,000 public-school teachers who will comprise the Boards of Election Inspectors (BEI) for the balloting.

Naysayers have made a big to-do about the technical capability of the teachers to operate the machines.

The belittling of the teachers aside, the fact is they will at no time operate the machines. Their duty is mainly to facilitate the voting and guard the machines from theft or tampering.

There's no question that the task of automating the 2010 elections is daunting. A number of things can still go wrong in the four months remaining before the voting. At some point, we laymen can only take it on faith that the Comelec and Smartmatic can do the job.

Whatever the difficulties, however, the negativism of the naysayers sounds reactionary and grating. Their counsel of no-change belittles what this country is capable of.

This negativism reminds me of the time when telephone service was still a monopoly of the Philippine Long Distance Telephone Co. in the country and only a privileged few had a phone line. Naysayers then said that we were doomed to perpetual backwardness in telecommunications. The technology was beyond our means and our reach. Lee Kuan Yew had the temerity to publicly joke about our telephone misery when he visited Manila. Yet look at where we are now, and how we have leapfrogged into the new technology of wireless communications. Who would have thought that 70 million of our people would be the proud users of cell phones today, and that we would lead the world in the art of text messaging.

The comments of Pacific Strategies and Assessments (PSA) in a recent report that Filipinos are not savvy enough for election automation technology is patronizing and insulting. The Hong Kong consultancy group either doesn?t know our people and our country, or it is being fed by the self-serving propaganda of local critics of the election automation program.

What is so complicated about voting in this automated system where the voter?s task is only to blot out the names of candidates he is voting for? How can that be more difficult than writing out the names in the ballot like what voters did in past elections?

Why should we fear the clustering of precincts into 82,000 voting centers in the May elections? Does this not in itself connote the greater efficiency of the automated system?

To be sure, complaints about flaws and limitations in the Automated Election System will not go away.

The flaws can be contained or its causes alleviated, but there will always be something to find fault with, because there is no perfect automation technology or machine around.

Every choice of technology thrusts the buyer into a big debate with competing technologies.

For all the difficulties that have dogged the automation program since the beginning, however, it's already something that we have come this far in computerizing the conduct of our elections that we have an election automation law in place, that we have an automation program being implemented, and that the bold experiment is about to unfold before our eyes.

Change in democracy
The big debate over technicalities and procedures in the automation program should not miss the point that we are undertaking here the biggest change in Philippine democracy since the grant of suffrage to women and illiterates. Reform on this scale will always have its fervent objectors who will point out that the change is the road to catastrophe.

But if history teaches us anything about the way of reform, it offers us this lesson. It is always better to embrace needed reform now, rather than to put it off for tomorrow. Programs tend to get better over time, because people who care will try to make it better. On the other hand, rejecting reform because you cannot have a perfect and foolproof system in place is a recipe for being imprisoned by the status quo.

Philippine democracy would be much stronger had we braved election automation decades ago when it was first introduced in the developing world. We would have experienced birth pangs in the beginning, but we would have surmounted the trials and be in the same position as those countries whose elections are fully automated or computerized today. And we would have been spared the agonies of the old manual system that has caused us so many headaches, to say nothing of lives and grief.

If we Filipinos are alert therefore to this earth-shaking reform dawning in our democracy, we should all be in the forefront of ensuring that election automation pushes forward. Civil society and the citizenry should be mobilizing to help Comelec and Smartmatic achieve our cherished goals of a successful automated national elections in May. ICT experts should be lending their talents to the cause. Teachers should volunteer to serve in the election boards and take whatever training is necessary. Churches should be mobilizing for the task of protecting the clustered voting precincts from goons and irregularities. And all those who claim to be experts in elections should be lending their expertise to the reform effort, instead of predicting no end that election automation will fail.

Like many out there, I don't have a clue whether Smartmatic-TIM and Comelec can really do the job. I  don't know whether four months is too short a time for the work still to do. I don't know whether this big experiment was embarked on with an eye to making the May elections fail.

What I do know is that this big leap into automated national elections is badly needed by our country and our people if we are to sustain faith in our democracy and retain some political credibility in the world. It's not a question anymore of whether we can automate the May elections, we must.

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