Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Disaster waiting to happen

The candidates are warming up for the starting gun. Others are yet on the way to the stadia, and there will be some 240,000 of these voting precincts spread throughout the country come May 10, 2010. It will be the first time we shall have automated elections on a nationwide scale. A gaggle of commissioners in charge of the political Olympics in this benighted land pin their hopes on some 80,000 machines which shall receive the accomplished ballots, issue a paper record similar to the cash register receipt we get when we buy goods at the supermarket. The voter shall then deposit this paper record in the ballot box. After the polling closes at seven in the evening, the machine tallies the votes cast, and transmit the same to the municipio, the capitolio, and the Comelec main office. In less than 48 hours, or so they aver, the Comelec in Intramuros shall have received the totals, and the winners of the country’s premier sporting event shall be known. Great.

Great? Let’s take a more than cursory look. Most everyone in this country presumes that once the voting is automated, the ghosts of Garci will be expunged from the system, and the phone pals of Garci will not be able to operationalize their evil designs. I am afraid the so-called automated elections of May 10, 2010 is a disaster waiting to happen.

Nowhere in the globe, except perhaps in this benighted land, do we have synchronized elections with choices for as many as 300 names of candidates and parties in the party-list system. Let me enumerate---a voter has to choose one out of 6 or 7 presidential candidates, with perhaps as many vice-presidential candidates. In manual elections, the voter sees a single underlined space for president and another for vice-president, the names of his choice for him to write down. With automated elections, he will be given paper on which is printed, in small font, the names of the dozen or so presidential and vice-presidential wannabes and beside them, small oval spaces which they are supposed to shade. Those shaded spots are what the machine would tally.

But there will also be the names of some 48 or more senatorial candidates, listed alphabetically. Each major candidate for president will need to present 12 candidates, many of them absolute un-worthies. And perhaps five candidates for representative. Plus five or six candidates for governor, and as many vice-governors. Plus five or six names for mayor and likewise their vice-mayor. Plus fifteen or more names for “bokales” or members of the provincial board. Plus maybe thirty candidates for six municipal council posts. How many names are these?

Bueno…7 plus 7 (president and VP) plus 48 (senators), plus 5 (congressman), plus 6 plus 6 (governor and his vice) plus 6 plus 6 (mayor and vice), plus 15 (bokales), plus 30 (councillors) makes a total of 136. Now add to that the list of parties in our party-list system, now around 160. That’s a total of 296, probably more.

Remember, in manual voting, each of these positions are simply printed, with an underlined space on which the voter writes his choices. In the automated system, where both voting and canvass is done through a printed ballot fed into a machine, voters will need to shade an oval space beside the printed names of each of the candidates of each of these positions. So the ballot will contain some 300 names of persons or parties. Go figure how this can be done.

In the manual system official ballot, the fonts used are probably 24. In the automated system, will they use font 8? That will make it extremely difficult for senior citizens with poor eyesight, and worse for those who have not been properly initiated into the new system, as in the country’s hinterlands and islands where the Comelec’s “massive” information program may not connect. The ridiculous alternative is to use large font, but that would make the ballot as long as two meters.

How will it be in the voting centers? The voter goes to his precinct, gets his official ballot, proceeds to the school desk, and shades in the provided ovals his choices for these positions, scanning with his eyes the list of some 300 printed names in small font. Will that take more time than in the manual elections? Has Comelec done a time and motion simulation, using, not James Vergara or some disciple of Garcillano in Intramuros, but Juan de la Cruz from Isla Puting Bato and Petra Dalosig from Lakewood in Zamboanga del Sur?

Then, after accomplishing his ballot, he proceeds to the voting machine, where the votes of four or five precincts will be fed into a single machine for the clustered precincts. Anywhere from 700 to a thousand people will line up to personally feed their ballots into that machine. Try figuring how these will impede the flow of people still lining up to check their names on the voter registry, getting their ballots, having their forefingers blotted with ink, fingerprinting, and other such requisites. Has the Comelec simulated this in a typical voting center? The flow of humans to and from voting machine to the ballot box in the particular precinct where he got his ballot? That printed “receipt” is the only paper trail that Comelec and the courts can use in case there is an electoral protest.

But prior to May 10, the nightmare is really in the printing of the official ballots. There will be specific ballots for each of the 1500 municipalities and 100 or so cities in the country, because the names of candidates are pre-printed. In the past, about the only difference in the ballot for Tandag and the ballot for Barobo in Surigao del Sur is the name of the municipality. Now Comelec has to supply the National Printing Office and all its sub-contractors (NPO can’t handle this by itself), the names of each of the candidates in each of the municipalities and cities of this benighted land. Between the submission of lists and the printing of these names, you will have a monumental headache, and errors, intentional or not. And only on Election Day will the voters and the candidates discover the errors. Too late.

Imagine if the name of Adel Tamano is missed out in the list of senators for some 70 or 80 municipalities in the country? Imagine if it is Prospero Pichay’s name that is omitted? Now think of the governors, the congressmen, the mayors. What if mayoralty candidate Angelo Reyes is not printed in the official ballots for Taguig, and instead finds his in the ballots for San Pedro, Laguna? He, he, he. This has happened in the matter of the LDP sample ballots in the 1992 elections. One man in charge of the logistics of sample ballots for Monching Mitra decided to monkey around with the distribution. Sample ballots of Chavit Singson in Ilocos Sur were found elsewhere in Mindanao, and those of Mindanao were found in Luzon. He switched the distribution, and created consternation on election day. Later they discovered that he had secretly switched his loyalty to FVR.

There are other fears. What if a losing mayoralty candidate instructs his supporters to line up early in the voting precinct, then either delays the process, or even tries to monkey around the machine, by say, putting some kind of glue or adhesive at the bottom of the two-side printed ballot, and “accidentally” jams the machine? Surely there are ways to prevent these, but how and who will foil these nefarious schemes in a land of political cheats?

That is why Gus Lagman and other well-meaning fellows suggested the Open Election System, where voting is manual and only the canvass is computerized. But then, the law wants full automation, and the Comelec shut their ears to Lagman’s fears of a disaster waiting to happen. Besides, Lagman’s proposal would have cost only 4 to 5 billion for PC’s and other paraphernalia, while the budget allotted by Congress is 11.3 billion. The operating rule in government, as we all know is, whatever is appropriated must be spent. Ano ang Comelec, tanga? Magmamalinis? Magtitipid? Hindi uso kay Garci at kay Abalos ang ganyan.

For where is the cheating done? Not so much in the voting process (vote-buying, cadena de amor…one is accepted as a given; the other is something alert watchers for a candidate should be able to foil), but in the canvass, where election return is transferred into a statement of votes and a certificate of canvass which shall be the basis for proclamation of winners. So Gus Lagman says, speed up the canvass through computerized recording and transmission of the election returns as base document. Melo would not listen.

And so, after what seemed like a fairly transparent bidding process, we have Smartmatic, whose machines were used previously in Hugo Chavez’ Venezuela. Do the Venezuelans have synchronized elections too? Do they have as many as 300 candidates and parties to choose from? In the US of A, for instance, there is block voting. A vote for Obama is automatically a vote for Biden. Ditto for governors and mayors, who are elected separately from the president two years after. They elect only two senators for each of their 50 states, who would proceed to Capitol Hill fronting the Mall and Washington’s obelisk. Philippine elections, and its multiplicity of posts stupidly synchronized by a myopically-written Constitution whose appointed members did not bother about systems or plain arithmetic are, well…onli in da Pilipins.

Will Smartmatic, Comelec, the Namfrel, the PPCRV, and the teachers deputized as board of election inspectors be able to operationalize the new system using these newfangled automated innovations smoothly come May 10,2010? Go figure.

Now let me propose this to our Congress:

The Constitution mandates synchronized elections, but the procedures to implement this mandate have been left to Congress, through an Omnibus Election Law and the Automated Elections Law passed in 2008. The implementing rules and regulations were drafted by Comelec and approved by Congress as well.

Why not amend these laws to provide for two separate ballots --- one ballot for President, Vice-President, and Senators, perhaps also the party-list congressmen, A second ballot will be for Congressman, Governor and Vice-Governor, Provincial Board Members, Mayor and Vice-Mayor, as well as Councilors.

The local government ballots, including the district congressman, which is strictly speaking a national office, shall be dropped in a ballot box, to be counted in the manual way, as per previous elections, in full view of the watchers and the voters, after the precinct closes. There will still be an election return, with its manual “taras”, and a certificate of canvass. For 2010, the same old way, because local candidates have the capacity to monitor and watch closely their canvass. They don’t really care what happens to the national candidates beyond distributing their sample ballots.

Only the ballots for national officials will be brought by the voter to the counting machine provided for the clustered precincts. Thus, there will be an automated canvass for the national officials, and a manual canvass for the local officials. The PPCRV and Namfrel should deputize their volunteers to watch the flow from precinct to automated machine, and thereafter, the deposit of the machine-generated paper receipt to a separate ballot box.

After all, the cheating for national officials always happens in the canvass. That is what we have to guard against. Speed in canvass and speed in proclamation thwarts the nefarious schemes of Garci and his generals. That is where automation should be effected.

Higher costs? For the additional ballot box, the paper, the printing of two separate ballots, and the printing of COC’s and ER’s --- yes. But then again, the Smartmatic bid was only some 7 billion pesos right? What happens to the savings of 4 billion pesos? That’s too much money for a massive information campaign. Surely this proposal will not eat up 4 billion pesos more, probably not even half a billion pesos more, minus the tongpats, of course.

Otherwise, prepare for disaster on E-Day. And the consequences of failure of elections.