CenPEG | May 10 Polls: Not Just System Glitch, but Policy Failure

The right to public information suffered with Comelec’s lack of transparency. The poll body failed – and continues to fail – to meet the transparency requirements of the election system by its intransigent and unexplained refusal to deny citizens’ groups access to vital election documents. Its lack of transparency left majority of the electorate misinformed and uninformed, duped by the illusion about automated election modernizing democracy and weeding out fraud.

By the Policy Study, Publication, and Advocacy
Posted by Bulatlat.com

The advocacy for credible elections in the Philippines has been daunting – but also rewarding. One of the biggest hurdles in this advocacy is engaging the Commission on Elections (Comelec), the country’s prime election manager, so as to make sure that its claim of making the recent automated election transparent, credible, and accurate works. It is the least that can be done to ensure that the people’s sovereign will is expressed in a country that is still struggling to make real democracy work.

Because a modern albeit untested technology was being adopted for the May 10, 2010 election, an inevitable clash between those who aimed to enforce it by all means based on the doctrine that the Philippines should catch up with “modernization” and those who believe that modernizing demands caution, rigorous testing, simulations, well-grounded certification, and a highly-developed political culture. The new election law, RA 9369, looks fair – and also stringent. With its technical provisions having been proposed by IT scientists, practitioners, and tested poll watchers the law is strong on the need for pilot tests; high standards of accuracy, reliability, security, and transparency; and, more important, extensive voter education and training by all election managers, inspectors, and technicians.

As a policy research institution, CenPEG monitored the 2010 automated election system’s implementation from the time it was “pilot tested” in the August 2008 Autonomous Region for Muslim Mindanao (ARMM) automated polls to its final launch last May 2010 where 17,000 elective positions, including the presidency, were contested by about 85,000 candidates in synchronized national and local elections. CenPEG’s election-day monitoring reports bared widespread incidence of technical glitches, voting machine breakdowns, transmission failures, back-up batteries overheating, non-performing satellite transceivers, millions of voters queuing from 3-9 hours to vote, and other irregularities. To validate the incidence reports, researchers farmed out to the provinces to conduct case studies and interview key informants from the local Comelec, poll inspectors, hired IT technicians, poll watchers, voters, candidates, and officials from the Department of Science and Technology (DOST). Accounts of election glitches were reconstructed; official papers, documents, and evidences were collected for analysis.

Information withheld

Research has a strategic value for national development and public affairs. It seeks out facts; facts are sourced through various means. When information is being withheld by official sources, questions are left unanswered and truth is compromised. In the course of doing research, CenPEG came face-to-face with top Comelec officials and advisers where simple technical questions elicited no response or mere quizzical stares, and critical inquiries are dismissed as untimely or premature. Research curiosity turned into inquisitiveness, and criticalness into persistence in unearthing more facts. But Comelec behavior turned from stonewalling to labeling and agitated anger. Intolerant of contrary views and unable to produce information – such as the vital election source code which the law says should be reviewed by independent groups – Comelec officials also became more evasive and stalling. Illusions replaced transparency as voters and media were told to “trust the machine” or, failing so, to leave fate to God once an “unforeseen election disaster” strikes. The automated election was touted as a “dream poll” and a medium for “modernizing democracy” – all-too familiar marketing tools.

One could detect a myopic belief that importing a voting machine is already modernization when modernization itself is a process of scientific development and a high socio-political culture that is able to produce indigenous modern technology. Worse, the automated system was equated with clean elections when, in fact, regardless of automation traditional fraud in a country like the Philippines has the power to hijack the voter’s sovereign will – and the country’s future. Who controls the machines, controls the vote. Indeed it was disturbing to hear a top Comelec official who, in trying to allay fears of a source code manipulation, went on to prescribe an “anti-virus” antidote.

Fortunately, in many instances, CenPEG received information from unofficial sources, high and low – slipped from under the door, from anonymous informants, emails, and courier.

Precisely due to ill-preparedness, the failure to meet deadlines such as machine manufacturing, ballot printing, and voter education redounded to cutting corners and foregoing other critical requirements. Critical security, transparency, and verifiability features that would have guaranteed some credibility and accuracy to election results were either ignored or removed. Results of failed or inadequate mock elections and field tests with a clear warning that Smartmatic, the technology provider, had a lot of catching up were all but ignored. By the time the disastrous final testing and sealing (FTS) of the machines happened on May 3, time was slipping away as the countdown to election day was drawing to a close.

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