By CHERYLL D. FIEL
As voting will be automated for the first time in 2010, the public policy watchdog Center for People Empowerment in Governance (CenPEG) foresees the elections as a more difficult process than an easier one.
“A lot of things that will be happening will be invisible to the eye,� said University of the Philippines-Manila Prof. Rosa Castillo, a CenPEG fellow.
�As the electoral process in 2010 will be run by machines from voting up to canvassing, much more is needed to ensure that the elections will be honest and credible,� Castillo pointed out. �For one, it will need information-technology-competent poll watchers.�
Castillo was in Davao to orient prelates belonging to the Ecumenical Bishops Forum (EBF)-Mindanao on the automated election system (AES).
She said the 82,000 vote-counting machines needed for the upcoming polls have yet to be delivered. Commission on Elections (Comelec) authorities are thinking of sourcing them from Shanghai after typhoon hit Taiwan, where the manufacturer of the winning bidder for the machines was based.
The machines were supposed to have arrived by now so that they can be tested, Castillo said. The machines will read and count the contents of the official paper ballots fed into it during the voting.
“What if the ballots will be damaged, crumpled, smudged, in the process of casting votes, and subsequently jammed or rejected by the machine in the process? Whether they will indeed faithfully capture the votes cast by a voter and accurately record it in electronic form, we cannot yet be assured of,� Castillo said.
Each voter will be holding a 30-inch-long paper ballot, with 600 names of candidates, (300 on each side) printed in a 10-size Arial font. “Could you imagine how unfriendly it will be for the illiterate and the disabled?” Castillo said.
Castillo also said the software or the program that will be used in running the machines has yet to be scrutinized and tested by competent independent groups.
Smartmatic-Total Information Management (Smartmatic-TIM), the foreign consortium which bagged the contract to supply the infrastructure systems for the Philippine automated polls, has not released until now the “source-code,” the software that will be used to read the contents of the ballots and to count the votes being cast.
“How do we know that the 82,000 machines will be running on the same program? Or, whether they are really free from threats of tampering and hacking?” asked Castillo.
Castillo said that Smartmatic-TIM should have disclosed the “source code” right when it was still bidding for the deal.
But this did not happen despite the Philippine election laws explicitly providing that the source code has to be opened for review by an interested, competent party.
CenPEG, according to Castillo, has been granted rights to access the source code since July this year through a Comelec en banc resolution.
When they found out that the source code has not been released by Smartmatic-TIM, CenPEG filed a petition at the Supreme Court on October 5, to compel its release.
But shortly after CenPEG filed the Supreme Court petition, the Comelec announced on October 8 that it had given SysTest Labs, a U.S. firm based in Colorado, the rights to review and certify the source code of the AES.
Castillo said a thorough review and study of the source code takes time. She said CenPEG is hoping to access the source code before the year ends. �If not, we are afraid it is going to be very late already,” she said. She also added there is also no assurance that the automated system will be �tamper-proof.�
Castillo explained that the AES will employ “system administrators,” personnel who know the passwords and who can issue a command on the computer.
She said there is no way of knowing yet whether the system administrators could also have access to secret keys issued to the Board of Election Inspectors (BEI) who shall use it to seal the statement of votes.
A statement of vote should already be immutable after it has been sealed by the BEI�s secret key. But Castillo said there is a danger that it can be altered if someone else, aside from the BEIs, would have access to the code.
It is not known yet how many system administrators will be deployed and where they will be stationed during the elections.
CenPEG said the �lack of source code review� and the yet �untested infrastructural systems� are just among the 30 vulnerabilities identified by the CenPEG in the AES that needed to be addressed to ensure an honest and credible elections. Not yet factored in here are the imminent power and telecommunication transmission failures, she said.
Bishop Constante Claro, one of the EBF Mindanao coordinators, expressed concern whether the 2010 polls will indeed be a democratic one.
�We doubt the sincerity of the government in ensuring this in the 2010 polls,� he said. �We have the feeling that the present administration is still interested in power. The AES, with its yet unaddressed vulnerabilities can be a tool for their stay in power,� said Bishop Claro.
Sr. Elsa Compuesto, executive secretary of the Sisters Association in Mindanao (Samin), also expressed more apprehensions.
�We cannot afford failure of elections,� she said. �We must make sure that the elections will push through. There is no other option. A failure of election spells Martial law and the end of our democratic rights,� she pointed out.
Samin participated in the EBF-initiated voters� education orientation during the two-day activity.
Sr. Compuesto said they are trying their best to learn the technology works so that they can also actively participate in poll watching in 2010.
�We have to do our share in ensuring not just the success of the elections, but also�and more importantly�that it will be credible, transparent and trustworthy,� she added.
Through a letter to Comelec Chair Jose Melo, EBF Mindanao called on the Comelec to address the weaknesses of the AES. The prelates and the nuns said they will continue to monitor Comelec actions on the AES.
The group also vowed to initiate more efforts on voters� education and mobilize more election watchdog groups. (Cheryll D. Fiel, davaotoday.com)