The Comelec pulled off a fast count alright, but is it accurate?

The count reached millions within a few hours, and was 90% complete within a week. That’s supposed to be impressive. Stunning, even.

But every time I ask, “so, how accurate are the counting machines?” I get a blank stare, including a surprising “I don’t know” from Mr. Gene Gregorio, Smartmatic spokesman. He gave this answer when I asked him directly, in front of many journalists, at the Kapihan sa Sulo forum last May 8, two days before the elections.

I had also asked this question from Commissioner Larrazabal on April 30, when I joined several IT experts convened by candidate Joey de Venecia III to talk to him about making public the SysTest Labs report. And his reply was also “I don’t know”.

Nobody, it seems, knows. Not the political parties, not the media, not PPCRV and other election watchdogs, not the public.

Isn’t it a little bit dumb, rather than smart, to go into a nationwide electoral exercise that will determine the future of our nation, without knowing the accuracy of the machines that will be counting the votes?

By the way, once we know the accuracy of a machine, we also know its error rate. A machine that is 95% accurate has an error rate of 5%. One that is 99% accurate has an error rate of 1%. The Comelec specifications called for a machine that is 99.995% accurate. This means an error rate of .005% or lower. Alternatively, it means no more than one error when reading 20,000 marks.

Why do we need such low error rates? We need it for very close contests. A machine that is 99.9% accurate, that is, an error rate of 0.1%, seems accurate enough. But such a machine will be unable to resolve contests where the apparent winning margin is less than 0.1%. That winning margin may simply be the result of machine error. Then, in these contests, we will have to count votes manually. In 2007, for example, Zubiri supposedly got .07% more votes than Pimentel, which gave Zubiri the 12th and last winning slot in the senatorial race. Machines with 0.1% error rates or higher would have been useless for resolving this contest.

The real test of an automated election is in resolving very close contests. And for such contests, we need very low error rates.

And it is hard to believe that Smartmatic and the Comelec don’t know. It is more probable that they know, but they don’t want us to know.

We actually had six chances to know the error rates of the PCOS machines. In five, the Comelec either kept the results from us, took them away, or otherwise made them useless. In one, we got a good idea of the machines’ error rates. Let us go through each of the six, one by one:

1. SysTest Labs system audit and source code review, began half a year before the elections. We paid SysTest some P72 million (1% of total project cost) to conduct a system audit and source code review of the Smartmatic system. And one of the things they should have measured was the error rate of several representative machines. When the Comelec released part of the Systest reports as a result of our dialogue with Comm. Larrazabal on April 30, the first thing I looked for was the machine error rate. I didn’t find it. Either SysTest did not measure the error rate, which would have been a major omission, or the Comelec chose to keep the results confidential.

2. Comelec acceptance tests, several months before the elections. As the PCOS machines came in, the Comelec should have tested these machines for failure rates, rates of rejection of valid ballots, and error rates, among other things. This is simple due diligence by a buyer accepting an expensive produce from a vendor. And since the Comelec specified an error rate of no more than .005%, they should have measured the error rate of each machine. Anything with an error rate higher than .005% should have been returned to Smartmatic for calibration, adjustment or replacement. In the process, each machine should have the test results attached to the machine itself, so that anyone can see what its actual error rate was. The Comelec, if it did these tests at all, have kept the results confidential.

3. Final testing and sealing (FTS) of the machines, three days before election day. Some election officials did the FTS seven days before the elections, and found to everyone’s great surprise that the machines were unable to detect or count votes properly! Votes mostly for local but also some national candidates were missed, while the votes for a few candidates were padded. The results were so bad that the Comelec hastily ordered all election inspectors to stop further testing of the machines.

4. Second FTS. The fiasco above was followed by a mad rush to recall, import, reconfigure, redistribute and reinstall new memory cards in time for election day on May 10. In this chaotic situation, security and chain of custody procedures must have been ignored or bypassed in the desperate rush to make the machines ready for election day. Were all new memory cards properly configured? Were all properly delivered and installed? Were all machines properly tested? Did all machines pass the test? I have been told this story by several watchers: “We were told that the testing will be on Sunday afternoon, but when we went, they told us it was already done yesterday.” Thus, when we held the elections, we did not know which machines, if any, were accurate, and which have remained grossly inaccurate, as we saw in the first FTS.

5. On election day itself, every voter should be able to verify that his choices are being correctly registered. This feature, which is built into the machine and is required by law, would have displayed on the screen the names of candidates corresponding to the ovals which the voter marked, a clear confirmation that the machine accurately registered the voter’s choices. This feature was disabled by the Comelec. Thus, if the machine that was counting their votes were inaccurate, the voters would never know.

6. After the elections, the random manual audit. Unfortunately, this audit is not so credible anymore. First, they announced the precincts to be audited noontime of election day. Thus, the cheats were forewarned which machines would be audited and would have ordered their field operators to stay away from these precincts! A normal audit should be finished in half a day — one day at the worst. Yet, three days after the elections, the full results had not been announced, the results that had come in were not made public, and the Comelec was simply making general public statements that “no discrepancies were found”. The delay, they said, was because the ballot boxed to be audited had to be retrieved from the municipal treasurer’s office where they were sent after the machine counting. Enough time for ballot box substitution to have occurred. With these problems, the audit has lost much of its credibility.

Yet the Comelec and local election authorities have already proclaimed winners, without even awaiting the random audit results, as if they knew that the audit would simply confirm the results.

Why do I get this feeling that I’m being told: “We’ve already pulled off a fast count, now you want us to be accurate too?”

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