The high-speed printing that misaligned UV marks can misalign the ballot ovals too

The ultraviolet (UV) scanner of the PCOS was disabled because the high-speed printing resulted in the UV mark on the ballot being “misaligned by one to two millimeters”, according to COMELEC Commissioner Larrazabal. As a result, the machine’s UV scanner often missed the mark and many valid ballots being being rejected.

Here’s the big question: If the misalignment of the UV mark was serious enough to make COMELEC turn off the UV scanner, then can’t the ovals be misaligned too? A misaligned oval means a misaligned a vote-mark. Which means the PCOS main scanner may have problems interpreting the voters’ choices.

The Comelec requires from the PCOS an error rate of less than .005%. That means less than five errors for every 100,000 marks. To determine if this Comelec specification is met, each PCOS should have been tested properly. But no test statistics have been released by the Comelec. And if these tests were done at all, they were probably done with perfectly aligned, not misaligned, ovals.

With misalignment, the two types of errors the scanner can make will both get worse: the false positives that register a vote/mark which is not there, and the false negatives that miss a vote/mark which is there. This means some candidates will gain votes (“dagdag”), while other candidates will lose votes (“bawas”). Does that sound familiar?

This problem is made worse by the Comelec decision to, in effect, blindfold voters while the machine is registering their choice. Originally, the PCOS was programmed to display the voter’s choices on its screen, so he can check if his choices were correctly registered by the PCOS and abort the process if the PCOS didn’t. This voter-verification is in fact required by the Automated Election Law (Section 7n): “Provide the voter a system of verification to find out whether or not the machine has registered his choice.” The Comelec ordered Smartmatic to disable this feature. Thus, the PCOS may falsely register voters’ choices, without voters knowing it. This is far worse than a PCOS that stops working or rejects valid ballots, problems which are apparent at once. An inaccurate PCOS will keep scanning and counting happily, with no indication or warning that it is miscounting votes.

According to a former Comelec official, similar problems had also occurred when the Comelec piloted automation in ARMM in 1998. He showed me a Comelec report entitled “Partial Automation of 1998 National and Local Elections”, which is also on the Comelec website. In 1998, said the report, Sulu ballots had to be manually recounted “due to an error in NPO’s printing procedure”. A similar recount was done with Lanao del Sur ballots, “also due to errors in printing of the ballots.”

The Comelec blamed “high-speed printing” for the misalignment. But misalignment is a common printing problem, and good operators know how to correct it. Why would it happen in such an important job as the printing of ballots?

It seems that the ballot printing is being done in such a hurry, that operators are not getting the time needed to stop the high-speed machines and correct any misalignments that may be happening. That the Comelec had insisted on printing ballots even on Maundy Thursday and Good Friday shows how disastrous even a slight delay might be. If they stopped the machines too often to correct for misalignments, they might miss their deadlines. Thus, the UV misalignment problem has gone on uncorrected.

As of April 16, according to Smartmatic, the NPO has printed 43.7 million ballots. If the high-speed printing has misaligned the UV marks, then how many of these ballots have misaligned ovals too? And in these misaligned ovals, how many false “dagdag-bawas” interpretations by the PCOS will occur?

The misalignment of UV marks and possibly the ovals too are the consequences of the Comelec violating the law and using a machine that has neither been piloted nor used widely. The SAES 1800 has never been piloted in the Philippines, as Section 6 of the Automated Election Law requires: “… the AES shall be used in at least two urbanized cities and two provinces each in Luzon, Visayas and Mindanao.” Nor has the PCOS been used widely in any other country, as Section 10 of the law also requires: “… the system procured must have demonstrated capability and been successfully used in a prior electoral exercise here or abroad.” The Supreme Court’s support for the Comelec’s stubborn insistence in using unpiloted Smartmatic machines must have reinforced the Comelec’s sense of impunity in violating provisions of the law.

Because of the lack of pilot, we lost the chance to detect early problems like these. As a result, they have put the entire national elections at risk.

Solution: both the PCOS and their associated ballots must be thoroughly checked for misalignment and accuracy in scanning. The tests must be done not by Smartmatic, but by independent third parties, say, the DOST, and witnessed by all stakeholders.

What if careful testing shows that the PCOS cannot reliably read properly shaded ovals? Then we may have no choice but to manually count the votes again, ballot by ballot.

[Note: This piece is based on the Halalang Marangal April 17 Statement on the problem of potentially-misaligned ovals, which I also drafted. It was published by the Philippine Star, p.18, on April 21, 2010.]

Roberto Verzola has a background in engineering and economics and a passion for social issues. He is recognized by the IT industry as an Internet pioneer in the Philippines and is often tapped by NGOs for technical advice. He currently lectures at the Institute of Mathematics of the University of the Philippines and is a convenor and secretary-general of the election watchdog Halalang Marangal (HALAL).

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