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Vote counting machines: Can we count on them?

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Wednesday, 13 April 2016 - Last Updated on April 13, 2016
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pcostop The upcoming May automated polls will feature the new vote counting machines (VCMs) as replacement to the old and highly controversial precint count optical scan (PCOS) machines. Will there be less technological glitches and security loopholes this time? Or will the electoral exercise be hounded yet again by questions on credibility and accuracy?

Technology provider Smartmatic, the same supplier in the two previous automated polls, said the VCMs are more powerful and have more security features than PCOS machines.

The new SAES 1800 Plus model’s random access memory (RAM) is 32 times bigger than its predecessor while its external memory capacity is 512 times larger, according to Smartmatic project manager Marlon Garcia.

Garcia also explained in a report that the VCMs will be using SD cards instead of the outdated compact flash (CF) cards used in PCOS machines in the 2010 and 2013 elections. The memory cards will be configured based on the information generated by the election management system (such as names of candidates and precint numbers).

New machines, same supplier

Smartmatic, in partnership with local tech provider Total Information Management (TIM), bagged the contract for the lease of 93,977 counting machines at a P7.9-billion price tag. As in previous contracts, the option to purchase clause was included.

pcosmachineSmartmatic president for Asia Pacific Cesar Flores said around P180,000 will be saved from each of the VCM, as each machine is leased for only P40,676.61 when its cost is pegged at P220,000 in the international market.

The Venezuelan company however has already earned tens of billions from the Philippine government since 2010 for the lease, sale and lease again of the counting machines.

Essentially Smartmatic will control, yet again, virtually all key aspects of the poll automation from the configuration of the machines to the canvassing of votes. This has been criticized by electoral watchdogs as the electoral exercise has allegedly been privatized with Comelec’s contracts with the election company.

In fact, the Comelec admitted that it is not sure if it can hold Smartmatic accountable if machines demonstrate technical glitches on election day. “I will have to look at the contract to see if we can find a way to hold them accountable,” Comelec chair Andres Bautista said in a report.

Mock polls reveal vulnerabilities

In the conduct of mock polls last Feb. 13, election watchdog Kontra Daya pointed out several vulnerabilities in the new counting machines. The group said VCMs still lack necessary safeguards to ensure accurate vote recording and counting.

IT expert and Kontra Daya convenor Rick Bahague said while the VCMs can now print their system hash code, this cannot be compared with the published hash of the source code. He said only the hash of the zipped source code is available online.

“Not being able to compare the printed hash code on the initialization report to the actual hash of the certified VCM program would mean that voters can not verify if the correct program is loaded on the VCMs,” Bahague said in a statement.

Kontra Daya also noted instances when the machine rejected a significant number of valid ballots which it said constitute denial of voters’ right to vote. “Every rejected ballot constitutes a violation to the basic right to vote of all citizens,” it said.

The printing of a confirmation receipt was also disabled during the mock polls. But with the Supreme Court ruling, Comelec will be compelled to activate the feature on election day.

Vote receipts: Are they enough?

But Hector Barrios, a member of election watchdog Automated Election System (AES) Watch, said the vote machine receipt “ensures only that the ballot has been read correctly by the machine” but “it does not help ensure that the election returns will be accurate.”

Barrios said the people “should not be given false hopes” that election results will be correct and accurate with the issuance of receipts, as the accuracy of the canvassing is a separate issue from the accuracy of the machine’s reading of the ballots.

Beyond tracking election returns and scrutinizing outcomes of the random manual audit, there is still no mechanism to confirm the veracity and accuracy of the counting of votes under the current poll automation track being pursued by Comelec and Smartmatic

At the very least, Comelec can make the entire electoral process transparent and inclusive instead of solely relying on Smartmatic and other private contractors. Unless Comelec breaks the control of private firms over the electoral exercise, Filipinos may yet again be passive spectators to the rushed proclamation of winners sans a thorough accuracy check.

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