Hawking for Smartmatic

Strategic Perspective
By René B. Azurin

Posted on November 10, 2011

Expectedly, after a brief pause, the Smartmatic lobby has kicked into high gear again with the almost simultaneous appearance in different papers of virtually the same article (under different column bylines) hawking the purchase of the “fraud-able” voting machines deployed by Smartmatic in the 2010 elections and attacking Comelec Commissioner Gus Lagman. It seems that the Smartmatic puppeteers are not content with pulling the wool over the Filipino voter’s eyes once, they want to do it again and again.

Indeed, for the shadowy foreign group Smartmatic, retaining effective proprietary control of Philippine election processes and getting paid yet more money by the Filipino people for flawed and untransparent machines would be indisputably smart. The problem is that letting this Venezuelan company with American connections do exactly that makes us Filipinos look unbelievably dumb.

The attack on Mr. Lagman, who currently seems to be the only objector on the Commission on Elections’s board to Smartmatic’s insidious plan, is presumably being done to prevent his confirmation. Reacting to Star columnist Mary Ann Reyes’s October 30 column and other look-alike articles, Mr. Lagman says, “I’d like to ask Ms. Reyes to be open to the reading public... is she now a salesperson of Smartmatic? That’s exactly how she sounds and her article reads like an advertorial for the company.”

On the P18-billion savings that Ms. Reyes claims the Philippines would save if it just bought the Smartmatic machines, Mr. Lagman responds: “She’d better do research first before writing on a subject she apparently knows little about.... I’d like to ask Ms. Reyes to show the computations regarding Smartmatic’s claim of P18-billion savings in the next two elections. I have my own computations and they certainly don’t match with theirs.” He then pointedly adds, “I’d also like to ask Ms. Reyes to research how Smartmatic-TIM’s capital was funded. Considering the heavily front-loaded payments by Comelec, she just might unearth something the public would be interested in.”

It will be recalled that the unusually heavy upfront payments specified in Smartmatic’s contract with Comelec, even before it delivered anything of substance, were loudly criticized at the time, but these were simply ignored by Comelec officials. Everyone there, it seemed, was hell-bent on getting what was obviously a sweetheart deal signed, gift-wrapped, and delivered. To whom, one has to wonder. In fact, Comelec not only agreed to one of the most lopsided payment terms ever, it also clearly adjusted pre-qualification requirements to favor Smartmatic and, later, refused to hold Smartmatic accountable for failing to meet various delivery commitments, changing rules as it might be convenient for Smartmatic and effectively allowing a seller to dictate its terms to the buyer.

Even if one chooses to ignore the critical observations of local IT experts from industry and computer science PhDs from academe who actively participated in monitoring the actual automation and conduct of the 2010 elections -- contained, by the way, in a 600-page report by the multi-sector election watchdog AES Watch -- one has to deal with the reality that the flaws of the Smartmatic electronic voting system (actually owned and provided by Dominion Voting Systems of Colorado, USA) have surfaced before in New York State, Chicago, and elsewhere. Rice University computer security expert Dan Wallach of the US election watchdog group BlackBoxVoting.org observed that “even New York’s standards, if somehow met [Dominion/Sequoia did not meet them], would not secure these systems from fraud.” Chicago software programmer and investigative journalist Brad Friedman notes that the Dominion/Sequoia system “has been hacked many times, and is still-hackable in a multitude of ways” and that “[t]he paper trail is not actually counted by anyone, no matter what it says, as the system relies on the internally recorded, 100% unverifiable, completely invisible-to-voters tally done by the computer system.”

This is the system we want to buy and use and tie ourselves to? Have we lost our minds?

Ms. Reyes charges Mr. Lagman with a vested interest in opposing the Smartmatic system because he and a group of IT professionals have endorsed what they called the Open Election System (OES), a system created by local IT experts, mainly from the University of the Philippines and the Ateneo University, using open-source technology. Mr. Lagman responds: “This was proposed to the Comelec by a group of IT practitioners, including myself, in late 2008. No member of said group was or is a vendor of election systems. The solution was offered to the Comelec for free. Had it been adopted, the Commission would have only needed to buy ordinary PCs (or laptops) and servers, not necessarily from only one vendor in Metro Manila, but from vendors in all the big cities in the country. It would have spread the wealth around while saving the Commission (from) logistical problems. P15,000 per PC, times an average of 3 PCs per school voting center, times 37,000 schools, equals P1.7 billion. Double that amount... to cover the salaries of the encoders, cost of servers and printers, other peripherals, and the cost of telecom connections, and we would have saved P7.9 billion (P11.3 total budget, minus P3.4 billion) on a much more transparent system... A wonderful bonus from this system? After every election, more than 100,000 PCs can be turned over to our public schools every three years! And if we follow this suggestion, there would be no warehousing and no maintenance cost. [all emphasis his]” There would also be no machine obsolescence to deal with and no proprietary foreign control of our electoral processes.

Mr. Lagman makes a telling point: “I’d like to inform Ms. Reyes that Filipino IT practitioners are some of the best in the world. That’s the reason why, despite the unfavorable environment, we nonetheless have a thriving industry exporting our services to more developed countries. Some of the Filipino software companies were asked by their clients and prospective clients abroad, ‘You’re selling us your services. But why did you outsource your elections to a Venezuelan group? That country is not even on the IT map.’” Good question.

The people who think that the 2010 automated elections were “a success” base that on the fact the counts finished quickly. But would they still have the same opinion if the counts were wrong? Who actually knows what the correct counts were? Speed is only one measure of election success. But, to give elections any measure of credibility, the more important elements are accuracy and transparency. In May 2010, the Smartmatic system did not allow anyone to see what was really going on and the absence of crucial security features did not allow anyone to show, after the fact, what really went on.

If we buy what Smartmatic and its hawkers are peddling, we will be putting a shadowy foreign group and its local agents in complete control of our electoral processes. This group will be able to manipulate election results and effectively decide who will be the winners in all elections that use this automated system. Dagdag-bawas, done electronically, is child’s play. Moreover, the conspiracy required to rig elections need no longer be widespread -- as it was in the manual dagdag-bawas of Garci’s time -- but will only need to involve one system programmer and a few strategically placed individuals. In the hands of these few will be the power to decide who our country’s future leaders will be.

The Filipino voter should really rally against Comelec ramming through the decision to buy the Smartmatic machines. If we take this sitting down, then we might as well just give up voting at all.