Too soon to call 2010 elections successful

It is too soon to declare the 2010 elections a success.

People want a successful election so badly, that it is easy to get carried away by flood of incoming election returns. Many want to believe that a clean and honest election has finally happened, at last.

But the vice-presidential election is yet to be settled. The contest between the 12th and 13th places in the senatorial race still has to be settled too. Hundreds, perhaps thousands, of local races also await to be settled.

Already news is coming in about delayed Election Returns (ERs), malfunctioning, missing or otherwise questionable memory cards, and other indicators of potential or emerging problems.

As in the manual system, the precinct level count is always the fastest. Even when election inspectors, watchers and the public counted votes by hand, most of the election results had always been available past midnight or early morning. Even under the manual method, the biggest challenge has always been at the municipal level and higher, where wholesale cheating operations occurred.

In fact, the automated election system failed spectacularly its first truly public test a week before election day, when many candidates got zero – a “bawas” — and some got more than the votes actually cast for them – a “dagdag”. The results were worse than most manual counts. Fortunately, the failures in the machine count were so obvious that the election inspectors and watchers noticed them immediately. An embarrassed Comelec quickly called off the public test, and traced the problem to misaligned ovals on the ballot. Because of a last-minute change from single-spacing to double-spacing in the ballot layout for local candidates, their oval locations did not anymore match the coordinates stored in a configuration file in a memory card within the PCOS machine.

Reconfiguring the memory cards was somewhat easier than reprinting ballots, so that is what the Comelec and Smartmatic tried to do.

Smartmatic only had 18,000 spare memory cards and there was little time to recall the rest, so in addition to the spares, Smartmatic recalled the cards that could still be recalled; imported the rest from Hongkong and Taiwan; edited each of the 1,631 ballot layout configuration files (unique for every town); programmed these configuration files into 76,340 memory cards (one for each machine); delivered the 76,340 newly reconfigured memory cards to the waiting machines all over the archipelago; found the right machines for the right memory cards; replaced the misconfigured memory card; and conducted a second round of public testing and sealing of the PCOS machines. All within a span of five days – 120 hours. Aside from some 400 machines that malfunctioned, the rest of the 76,340 machines worked fine and gave the country its first successful automated elections. So they say.

Can we now trust the machine results?

These machines had grievously failed to count a few days earlier. This was followed by a mad rush of recalls, importations, file reconfigurations, card reprogramming, deliveries, reinstallation, and a second round of testing and sealing. In the mad rush, were security procedures and chain of custody considerations still observed? Did anyone see an election inspector with an ultraviolet lamp to check for authentic ballots, for instance? (We have not found anyone who did.) Suppose there were also more subtle problems that a ten-ballot test set was insufficient to detect – ovals that were misaligned by only one or two millimeters, for example, just as the security marks were, or oval coordinates that were purposely changed slightly to shave votes from targetted candidates. Were tests done at all for these potential problems?

Suppose an ATM had earlier given you only half the money than it deducted from your account, and the bank tells you the machine is now ok. Wouldn’t you count your money at least once in subsequent withdrawals? Suppose most ATMs of a bank network shortchanged its clients, wouldn’t they demand that every ATM of that network be carefully tested and recertified for its counting accuracy?

For exactly the same reason, every candidate who lost – and won – in the machine-counted 2010 elections should demand thorough post-election testing and audit for accuracy of every counting machine and its results.

Losing candidates should demand it, because they might have actually won.

Winning candidates – especially those who lead by a huge margin – should demand it, because the gross machine errors a few days earlier and subsequent doubts about machine accuracy have devalued their victory.

Apparent president-elect Noynoy Aquino should demand it, if only for the sake of his running-mate Mar Roxas, who sacrificed his own presidential ambitions to give way to Noynoy.

There was no time for proper testing in the mad rush to the May 10 elections because few wanted the elections postponed. But we have fifty days before June 30, when the new set of elected officials are scheduled to take over. We still have enough time check, double-check, and be sure about the results of the 2010 elections.

In the meantime, the Comelec and local election authorities should not be in a hurry to proclaim winners and declare the elections a success.

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