THERE is growing concern about full automation of the 2010 elections, with a group of Filipino citizens and organizations espousing integrity in governance throwing its support for partially automated elections instead, and an election watchdog naming Feb. 10 as the last day for the Commission on Elections to decide on whether it can proceed with full automation or not.

“We support the advocacy of Gus Lagman for the Open Election System,” said former finance under-secretary Milwida Guevar-ra, co-convenor of the Move-ment for Good Governance (MGG), last Friday.

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Under the Open Election System (OES), the voting and counting of votes at the precinct level would be manual, while the canvassing of results would be automated. The names of the winners would be available in six days, three days longer than under full automation, but still shorter than the 42 days it currently takes to declare winners under the fully manual system.

“We’ve got to make sure that we are allowed to count at the precinct, and make sure that what is sent (to the Comelec central office) is what was voted on,” said MMG founding member and Alyansa Agrikultura chairman Ernesto Ordoñez during a Center for Media Freedom and Responsibility (CMFR)-sponsored roundtable discussion with media and civil society groups at the AIM Conference Center in Makati City.

Citing the Philippine experience of fraud in past elections, highlighted by the 2004 “Hello, Garci” scandal that put President Arroyo in the spotlight as the alleged architect of the fraud, critics of automation have said automating the count might open the door to the automated generation of results not reflecting how the people actually voted.

Workshop

In a Philippine Press Institute (PPI) workshop in Cagayan de Oro last October preparing community journalists for the 2010 elections, PPI vice chairman Vergel Santos voiced major reservations about full automation, saying, “Human eyes will no longer see the actual tallying. The results will be a fait accompli, hopefully, not pre-cooked.”

Lagman, head of Trans-parentElections.org.ph, early last year said that instead of eliminating fraud, automation in the form to be undertaken by the Commission on Elections (Comelec) might even aid fraud because automation would reduce human intervention, which would make it easier for candidates to cheat because there would be “fewer people to buy out.”

Delays

Under the Comelec’s Automated Election System (AES), automation will start from the voting, and go on to the counting, canvassing and transmission of election results.

But with delays in both the delivery of the Precinct Count Optical Scan (Pcos) machines to be used in the May elections and the release of the source code to be used by the machines in counting the votes, the MGG’s Ordoñez called on Comelec Chairman Jose Melo to declare that full automation cannot be undertaken this year.

Asked whether Melo could face cases should he decide against automating the polls, Lagman, interviewed over the phone by Sun.Star Cebu after the discussion Friday, said there was “no legal impediment” to reverting to manual elections.

“The law doesn’t prohibit manual elections,” he said.

In fact, Sections 31 to 42 of Republic Act (RA) 9369, which amended the original poll automation law, RA 8436, talk about manual elections, said Lagman, who was part of the technical working group that crafted the amended poll automation law.

As further proof that the 2010 elections do not have to be automated, Lagman said that for lack of time, the 2007 elections were not automated either even if RA 9369, passed in January 2007, was already in place.

He accused the Comelec of giving the impression that the May 2010 elections have to be automated because of the law.

Feb 10

During the CMFR-led discussion, Eric Jude Alvia, secretary general of the election watchdog National Citizens’ Movement for Free Elections (Namfrel), also expressed doubts about whether “we can automate 100 percent.”

Even if all the Pcos machines arrived on time, he said there were still transmission and logistical problems to deal with.

“We support the AES (Automated Election System),” he said. “(But) we don’t want to have quick elections, but accuracy (of election results) is compromised.”

Alvia said Comelec should declare by Feb. 10 whether automation can proceed or not.

Section 11 of RA 9639 says a technical evaluation committee should determine “not later than three months before the date of the electoral exercise” whether the country is prepared for the AES or not based on six documented results, including “the successful conduct of a field testing process followed by a mock election event in one or more cities/municipalities” and “the successful completion of a source code review.”

Rona Ann Caritos, pro-ject director of the Legal Network for Truthful Elections Inc., said, “CenPEG (Center for People Empowerment in Governance) has filed a case for

Comelec to release the source code, but the Supreme Court has not acted on it.”

In its website, CenPEG described the source code as the human-readable version of the computer programs that will run on the Pcos and Board of Canvasser computers on election day. It will reveal whether the voting and canvassing are done properly by the machines. (CTL)