The Comelec’s two options — refurbishing PCOS and leasing or buying OMRs — are both cornered by foreign vendor Smartmatic. But the Filipino IT sector have alternatives.
BY MARYA SALAMAT
MANILA – For the 2016 elections, Filipinos have the option to use an automated poll system that its developers and supporters described as cheaper, transparent, auditable, secure and a product of Filipino ingenuity. It thus seems to address the complaints and criticisms leveled against the PCOS-based system that had been used twice in the country.
“The Philippines is one of the biggest exporters of software to developed countries, why do we have to buy technology from foreigners especially from foreigners not known for it?” former Comelec Commissioner Gus Lagman asked at a press conference last month. He and his colleagues from election watchdogs unveiled their proposed alternative systems for automated polls.
Earlier, one of their proposals, the so-called “hybrid” poll system, has been rejected by the Comelec, which cited the law’s mandate for fully automated polls. Their latest proposal is the fully automated election system dubbed as TAPAT.
But when Comelec chief Andres Bautista announced this week that they are open to two options, it excluded TAPAT.
The Comelec’s two options are both cornered by foreign vendor Smartmatic: for the refurbishment of more than 80,000 PCOS machines and for the lease or procurement of new PCOS-like OMR (Optical Mark Reader).
Seeking to replace Smartmatic’s PCOS, OMR
TAPAT is conceived and engineered as an alternative to foreign provider Smartmatic’s PCOS, and their new OMR (Optical Mark Reader) offered, too, by Smartmatic.
Developed by Filipino computer engineers Arnold and Angelo Villasanta, TAPAT’s poll machine was first presented during a press conference early last month. The second was in July 20, in a mock election held at Pamantasang Lungsod ng Maynila, where superstar Nora Aunor was among the 200 “voters.” She praised TAPAT citing the ease of use and the fact that she saw how her votes were recorded and counted.
According to the developers and supporters of TAPAT election system, it is simple to use; it offers options to correct or change votes yet still make the ballot valid for scanning; it promotes accuracy during vote counting; and it is capable of doing random audit at the precinct level.
“It is more advanced than PCOS or OMR,” said Nelson Celis, spokesperson of Automated Election System Watch (AES Watch), an IT professor in La Salle and former president of Philippine Computer Society.
The TAPAT election technology combines in one machine the OMR and a printer of vote receipt they call as voter verified paper audit trail or VVPAT, which also has a number corresponding to the particular voter who cast it. Its machine also counts the votes cast in that particular precinct, making both the voting and the counting transparent.
“In Smartmatic’s PCOS, we don’t see how they count it. The ballot is fed to the machine. A few weeks later, they tell us who wins,” said Lagman.
Angelo Villasanta said they tried to make voting easier and more economical. They drew on the concept of placing bets on lotto, so in TAPAT system, voters are to shade ballots corresponding to preassigned numbers of their chosen candidates. To ensure the number they shade corresponds to their candidate, on the table where they will vote there would be a list of all candidates with picture and number. Each TAPAT machine is like a complete voting counter.
Their ballot is bigger than a lotto ticket, but at least three times shorter than the ballot fed to PCOS.
Villasanta suggested that the more affordable TAPAT poll system can help resolve the problem of overcrowded clustered precincts, where it is the people who suffer. He asked for people’s support for their innovation.
Cheaper, more practical poll system
The Villasantas estimate the cost of each TAPAT poll machine to be between P16,000 ($350) to P18,000 ($393).
On behalf of the election watchdogs and IT groups who have been critical of Smartmatic’s PCOS, they are donating the open-source program and design of the TAPAT poll system to the government. So, its cost is just for the total of the components such as the tablet computer and receipt printers, paper and the machine’s housing when put together.
The Villasantas said the cost would be lower per machine since the government can buy the component gadgets in bulk.
If the government will approve the TAPAT poll system now, Celis said, the government could immediately set things in motion for the assembly of TAPAT machines. He told Bulatlat.com it is easy to use as most people are now familiar with smartphones and tablet computers.
TAPAT thus cost at least six times lower than PCOS or OMR, which cost the public more than a hundred thousand pesos each.
Lagman added, it also has “no hidden cost” like the PCOS, for which the government spends up to P400 million ($8.74 million) a year just for warehousing.
The election watchdog AES Watch is urging the government to just donate the component gadgets of TAPAT to teachers or public schools after the elections.
They added that because the TAPAT machine costs less than PCOS or OMR, it gives rise to the possibility of increasing the number of precincts, or the number of TAPAT machines, so voters are more readily able to vote, more comfortable and less crowded, and teachers are not as harassed.
Villasanta added that unlike PCOS, the tablet computer is not sensitive to the paper being fed to it for reading.
Returning transparency, people’s ability to guard election results …
In both the TAPAT and the hybrid poll system earlier rejected by Comelec, Lagman said their goal was to bring back transparency in counting election results.
Lagman said the (opaque) PCOS technology and Comelec’s disabling of various safety features in transmission of results have made the election results vulnerable to tampering.
In fact, much of the transparency the election watchdogs seek to bring to automated polls revolve around recovering from Comelec and the national government the centralized power it had gained over the automated polls.
In the manual elections, candidates and poll watchers can check the ballots being read, and the number of votes being transmitted from precinct level and up. All these became the sole domain of national government in PCOS-based poll automation.
Unfortunately, because there are yet no implementing rules and regulations accompanying the poll automation law, critics and watchdogs complain of Comelec’s dismissal of their questions by citing its own interpretation of the law.
Lagman recalled their shock at various actions in past elections in which the Comelec had opened ballot boxes, ordered the reprogram of vote counting, among others, and no one can check or verify the integrity of the end result.
Citing their use of lotto-type ballot and ATM-type receipt, they also said the poll system should adjust to the people, and not the other way around.
“Comelec made people adjust to the machine,” Lagman said, citing how it had disenfranchised voters such as the people with disabilities. In the last two PCOS-based elections, overcrowded clustered precincts reportedly disenfranchised voters who waited a long time in queues.
He added that PCOS also doesn’t have VVPAT (voter verified paper audit trail), which is stated in the automated elections law.
… If government is receptive
Benjie Valbuena, national chairperson of Alliance of Concerned Teachers (ACT), chided the Comelec for seeming to give premium to speed (of voting and counting) over transparency and accuracy.
“Experience is the best teacher – for what are the assessments of the past if we will not rectify the mistakes?” Valbuena asked.
In refusing to consider TAPAT after its mock elections July 20, Comelec Chairman Bautista reportedly reasoned that it has not yet been tried.
But Lagman and Celis and other leaders of election watchdogs said PCOS had also been untried when the government decided to use it. Neither is the OMR.
Temario Rivera, former professor and chair of the Department of Political Science at the University of the Philippines-Diliman and current chairman of the board of Center for People Empowerment in Governance, praised the hybrid poll system and TAPAT fully-automated poll system as “excellent demonstrations of the ingenuity of Filipino IT experts.”
“Can you imagine if the government is receptive? With material support, we can come out with a system that’s transparent, far less costly, and to be donated to school children and school teachers,” he said at a press conference.
Lawyer Emmanuel Luna criticized the Comelec’s seeming bias for Smartmatic.
“These people have been trying to discredit AES Watch and they’ve been promoting Smartmatic, and they shouldn’t be doing that because there is an ongoing bidding. That’s graft and corruption,” Luna said.
Citing the law on procurement, Luna reminded the government that the law mandates that Filipino science and technology should be promoted and assisted and financed by the state.
He clarified also that they are not harboring personal or ill feelings against the Comelec, which “has no monopoly of what’s good for the elections.” In fact, lawyer Luna said, they have been trying to help the Comelec.