To Take A Stand -- By Gus Lagman

Use a faulty bazooka to kill a fly?

Posted on March 08, 2011

Would you buy a car so you can drive to your next-door neighbor? No, you wouldn’t. You’d walk. Would you buy a car so you can drive a block to your place of work? No you wouldn’t. You’d walk. Just because cars are available -- are, in fact, commonplace -- does not mean that you’d need to buy one, even if its purpose does not warrant it. You’d be a fool to make such an illogical decision.

But that’s similar to what the Comelec wants to do. In the election in the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (ARMM), each voter only writes three names on the ballot -- his choice for governor, vice governor, and assemblyman. There had been ARMM elections in the past where the positions of governor and vice governor were undisputed. And where there were only 10 or so candidates in all, including candidates for assemblyman.

Even if there were five times that number of candidates, it would only take an hour or so to tabulate the votes of the 200 voters in the precinct (the number of voters per precinct in pre-2010 elections). Most likely, it would take less than an hour. So why even automate it? Count them manually, for chrissakes! It’s the most appropriate solution. (Automate only the canvassing and electronic transmission, if you must.)

But, no. Comelec wants to purchase almost 3,000 PCOS machines that were used in 2010 for use in the ARMM election in August, at a cost of more than a hundred million. That’s our money, your Honors ... not yours!

But what’s worse is that the machines they want to buy have been proven to be defective. Here’s an abridged version of what Dr. Manalastas, computer science professor at the Ateneo and UP, says:

"... [R]easons to support our statement that the official Comelec counts are generally wrong. (1) The mismatch between ballot faces and CF-card data for the PCOS, discovered on May 3, and Comelec’s inability to deliver the correct CF cards to the precincts before May 10 ... (2) The inability of the PCOS computer to correctly read voters’ marks (contrary to the 99.995% accuracy claimed by Comelec) or the failure of the PCOS program to correctly count or record votes. (3) ... the PCOS and CCS computers are not properly programmed to distinguish between testing-day results and actual election-day results. (4) That the ... Comelec CCS server and Congress CCS server could produce two distinct totals, both of which are wrong, is evidence of the fact that the Smartmatic CCS computer program has serious bugs, and so cannot be trusted to count properly. (5) SysTest Labs, the company appointed by Comelec to do a source code review, testing, and certification of the Election 2010 computer programs, reported many programming errors in the Smartmatic-Dominion source code, and these errors in programming actually affected the election results in a destructive way, as evidenced by the substantial amount of web-page errors in the Comelec election results website."

(By the way, according to Comelec’s IT consultant, Tato Garcia, Dominion has said that it will not allow Smartmatic to release the source code to interested parties, in violation of the law and bidding specs. Why hasn’t Comele filed legal charges against Smartmatic?)

Now, Doc Mana, as he is more popularly known, is no ordinary IT professor. Many of the computer science graduates in the past 20 years passed under his tutelage.

So, using the analogy of cars again, it’s like buying a car to go to your next-door neighbor, despite advice from top mechanics that the car is defective!

And yet, in the past week, several columnists dared write articles in support of the purchase of the machines. These are columnists who know next to nothing about IT systems. They even tried to destroy the credibility of some of the IT personalities and IT groups -- without bothering to check the details of what they wrote about. The way the stories were written, they seemed to have come from only one source. I shall not speculate on what compelled them to write about the subject. I leave it to them to explain their position to their readers.

What I still can’t understand is that the new Comelec chairman has two high school batchmates who are IT practitioners knowledgeable about election systems -- Mano Alcuaz and me. In a letter that he wrote not too long ago, Mano offered pro bono assistance to Comelec. Three weeks ago, Chairman Brillantes and I were in the same social event. He approached me and after an exchange of pleasantries, he said he would contact me to, if I understood him correctly, seek my advice regarding the PCOS machines. I, of course, readily agreed. I have yet to receive a call from him.

That’s just fine with me because that’s his prerogative, except that I find it difficult to understand that he would rather believe the position of the other four commissioners, who are lawyers, not IT practitioners; the Comelec Advisory Council, which, for some reason that is also difficult to comprehend, recently reversed its original position that the PCOS machines should not be purchased. Hmm ....

Even the Committee on Suffrage and Electoral Reforms Hearings on the Alleged Fraud and Precinct Count Optical Scan Machine Manipulation in the May 10, 2010, Automated Elections (the congressional committee hearings chaired by former Rep. Teodoro Locsin) concluded that, "Before the next automated election, all the loopholes in the PCOS and the automated election process should be firmly plugged by either the current provider or by another more assiduous supplier. If not, a reversion to manual elections with heightened vigilance by organizations like the PPCRV and NAMFREL would probably yield more credible and accurate results." (Emphasis mine.)

In his talk during the J.V. Ongpin Annual Lecture Series, former Comelec Chairman Christian Monsod said, "Finally, there was agreement that the PCOS machines should not be purchased. Thus, if the Comelec decides to purchase the machines, it might be a good idea to insist that all those involved in the transaction be subjected to a lie detector test and asked the question: how much is the commission on this deal?" (Emphasis mine.)

I’d like to propose a middle-ground solution that might prove very interesting to the public, whose tax money, anyway, is being spent on this purchase: Since this has been a long-running controversy, with laws having been violated left and right in the process, why not settle it once and for all. Let’s hold a debate between the Comelec, its advisory council, and IT consultants on one side, and then personalities in the IT community on the other. If the Comelec is so convinced about their decision, despite all the articles written against it, then they should not fear facing this "noisy group" of critics. And for the sake of transparency, let tri-media cover the event. How about it, your Honors?