The issue: failure of automation, not failure of election

The issue is not a failure of election, but a failure of automation.

Failure of election” is a narrow legal term describing a rare situation. The Omnibus Election Code defines it as a situation in which “the election in any polling place has not been held on the date fixed, or had been suspended before the hour fixed by law”. The suspension may also occur “after the voting and during the preparation and the transmission of the election returns”. The definition further requires that the failure “would affect the result of the election”, or “results in a failure to elect”. It has occurred in barangays or towns but never on a national scale.

Although some have raised its possibility in 2010, they were probably using the term loosely and were not aware of its legal definition.

Thus, Chairman Melo could say, with a straight face, that failure of election was “pure fantasy”. He is using its narrow legalistic definition. If voters were able to cast their votes and Comelec proclaimed a winner, there was no failure of election.

The issue in 2010 is the high risk of a failure of automation. This is what was raised by Halalang Marangal, an election watchdog which includes former Senator Wigberto Tañada, former Comelec Commissioner Mehol Sadain, and retired General Francisco Gudani among its convenors. We had in fact estimated the probability of failure as of March 8 at 75%, and we have seen no reason to substantially revise that estimate. We still consider the risk of failure “unacceptably high”.

Let me define what we mean by a failure of automation.

Election automation is a failure if the time it takes to determine the winners in the election is not significantly shorter than the manual method, or if the fraud that has chronically attended our elections is not significantly reduced.

Let me review the basis of our assessment that the election automation had a 25% chance of success. (You can find the details in Jarius Bondoc’s April 5, 7 and 9 columns in this paper.)

A March 8 full-page ad by Smartmatic in major national dailies had claimed “a vote of confidence” on the election automation project it was implementing in the Philippines. Smartmatic had claimed substantial achievements in the five sub-systems that comprised the whole Automated Election System (AES).

But when we scrutinized carefully the Smartmatic ad, we found gaps, delays, problems and at least one glaring false claim (“successful field tests and mock elections”).

In the Hardware sub-system, Smartmatic claimed they have completed the delivery of the machines, but glaringly omitted reference to testing. Clearly they have not tested the machines thoroughly. Neither did they have the time to do so. Former Comelec commissioner Mehol Sadain tells us that in 2004, it had taken them three months to fully test 1,990 automated counting machines. If deployed, some of the partially-tested machines are bound to cause problems on election day. We also found that Smartmatic had bought 21% more memory cards than necessary. In the wrong hands, these could be loaded with false precinct results and substituted for authentic cards. Because of these and other problems, we estimated the probability of success of this sub-system at 80%.

In the Software sub-system, we noted that no local stakeholders had managed to conduct a proper review of the source code, because of the Comelec’s obstinate refusal to implement the clear intent and letter of the law. We also noted that the Comelec released no certification documents or full report that would support its Feb. 9 claim that Systest Labs had completed its audit/review of the AES. Since time had run short for a thorough review, we estimated the probability of success of this sub-system at 70%.

For the Logistics sub-system, we cited media findings about the questionable capacity of the forwarders chosen by Smartmatic to deliver election paraphernalia throughout the Philippines. We estimated the Logistics probability of success at 80%.

For the Transmission sub-system, we cited among other things the 70% signal coverage in the Philippines, as Smartmatic itself found out. Smartmatic had transmission problems even within Metro Manila, suggesting poor quality of transmission equipment. We gave it 70%.

For the Ballot Printing sub-system, we cited the confidential Comelec memo which warned that it was impossible to finish ballot printing on time, given the rate they were printing them. We gave it 80%. The Comelec subsequently brought in a fifth ballot printer, raising its capacity by 20%, and making it possible – if no further glitches happened and the printing went on non-stop – to meet its April 25 deadline.

To get the overall probability of success of the entire AES project, the sub-system probabilities of success must be multiplied together. Yes, multiplied together, not averaged. And not just the lowest figure – the weakest link – either. Check it with your calculator: .8 x .7 x .8 x .7 x .8 = .25 or 25%. Note that we see the glass as one-fourth full, not three-fourths empty. We are optimists to a fault, not doomsayers.

So many things can go wrong with the AES that Murphy’s Law is bound to kick in. Like a toss of two coins, Chairman Melo is betting that two heads will come up. He bet P7.2 billion of the taxpayer’s money. If you count the whole election budget, P11 billion, all in.

Chairman Melo’s bet will lose 75% of the time. That makes failure of automation the issue in 2010.

The time is very short, but we still have a possible solution. Details in subsequent posts.

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