Damned if you do, damned if you don't automation

The automation of 2013 national and local elections still runs against heavy headwinds.The latest, of course, was the latest pastoral letter of the Catholic Bishops Conference of the Philippines (CBCP). It called for “[the] COMELEC to adequately address the issues and respond, place corrective measures if necessary, to the studies of technical experts to the alleged deficiencies of the present system and technology of automated elections. There can be no transparency in elections if the COMELEC itself is not transparent.”

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Except for persistent doubts coming from groups such as those in the Kontra-Daya Coalition and election losers, the 2010 automated election results were overwhelmingly accepted by the people. The most important election contest was the presidential election wherein President Benigno “Noynoy” Aquino III won on a landslide of almost 45% of the votes in a 10-candidate field. Some of his opponents immediately conceded the very next day on the basis of swift results from the automated system.

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Most international and domestic election observers agreed to the credibility of the 2010 election results and many lauded the key role played by the automated election system to achieve this result. The Comelec Advisory Council, in its post-election report concluded as follows:

“The automation of the May 2010 elections was definitely not perfect. Smartmatic/TIM and COMELEC made mistakes throughout the entire process that gave people a reason to distrust the AES. However, the problems that arose were not severe enough to allow interested parties to manipulate the election results. Despite all its shortcomings, the AES was still able to eradicate the most damaging form of electoral fraud—the dagdag-bawas (add-subtract). While the lessons to be learned from this exercise are many, the COMELEC Advisory Council believes that the Philippines is much better off with automated elections and that manual elections are now officially a thing of the past.”

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The present brouhaha about the PCOS machine and the automated election system in the 2013 national and local elections should be viewed from this baseline perspective. The Supreme Court, in its second decision regarding the court case brought before it, again allowed the use of the automated election system in the current elections. The Precinct Count Optical Scanner (PCOS) machine and the Optical Mark Recognition (OMR) technology it implements are the same as in 2010, with Comelec-authorized enhancements and correction measures added.

The attitude to take, I think, is to let the Comelec do its work without undue interference and delaying, pre-judging tactics that feed on doubts and frustrations of election losers and haters of democratic elections. We should monitor the implementation of the automated election system, yes, but not solely on the basis of opinions of one set of “experts” who have their own agenda. We risk a “damn if you do, damn if you don’t” situation here.

The CBCP pastoral statement, I think, narrowly escaped this perspective.


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