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[Photo of Representative of Smartmatic]Are we ready for Democracy 2.0? The country's top techie says it's all systems go.

“I don't know how compromised they are,” says Secretary Ray Roxas-Chua III. “They” refers to the Philippine Commision on Elections; Chua is the the country's Information and Communications Technology Secretary.

Chua says, while he can vouch for top Comelec officials, there may still be bad eggs lower down the ranks. But he also points out that if automated elections are implemented properly, the bad eggs will do little damage.

“What influence can they have?” asks Chua, speaking to an intimate gathering of Anvil Business Club members over breakfast. He says the Comelec—and the Comelec Advisory Council he heads—has focused on removing vulnerabilities from the 7.2-billion-peso system it intends to use in the 2010 elections. With safeguards in place, he notes, political operators will find it close to impossible to cheat.

Paper Trail

With each ballot coded to work only in a specific voting precinct, Chua says that the old practice of ballot stuffing will simply not work. Any attempts to input more votes than registered voters will also fail, he promises, as will scanning the same ballot more than once.

When a ballot is scanned into the machine, an electronic image of the ballot is created as backup. This, as well as the original ballot, will serve as a record of the vote. The Comelec can consult both in case of an electoral protest. Random manual audits will also be conducted to ensure the integrity of the system.

At the end of the day, precinct election results will be transmitted simultaneously to the municipal Comelec office and onto the central office in Manila. According to Chua, the Comelec has the capability to provide real-time online updates on election results as they come in, if it wishes.

Technophobia

Chua admits that distrust of technology—and of the Comelec as an institution—has helped create fears that automation will lead to wholesale poll fraud at the push of a button. Even after the Supreme Court junked a petition filed by lawyer Harry Roque to invalidate the joint venture poll contract with Smartmatic-Total Information Management, the detractors of poll automation remain adamant.

Secretary Chua, who has a degree in computer science from the University of Pennsylvania, says that fears of hackers hijacking the system are based more on fiction than fact. The voting machines themselves will not be online except during transmission of election results to the central server. Data will be protected with 128-bit encryption that, Chua says, are “practically impossible for brute-force methods [to crack].”

Critics of poll automation (Sen. Francis “Chiz” Escudero, among them) say the manual method of counting votes may be flawed but, at least, it provides an iota of accountability. Chua argues, however, that manual counting, where votes are read aloud and tallied on blackboards, is hopeless. “Who really sees who's reading what?” he asks.

The Secretary likens the fear of automating elections to what took place when banks first rolled out Automated Teller Machines in the country.

Although people were initially hesitant to let a machine handle their money, people nowadays hardly give a second thought to the chance of their ATM screwing up a transaction; although it occasionally does.

“How do you know that the calculator is correct? I don't know. I don't know if Excel is adding things correctly,” Chua points out, noting that millions daily entrust critical computations to pocket calculators and spreadsheet programs.

How Smart Is Smartmatic?

Another concern raised by critics is the alleged track record of multinational technology provider Smartmatic. An investigation by the Philippine Senate earlier this year questioned the wisdom of entering into a contract with a company registered in Barbados, where business regulations are reportedly lax.

Chua comments, however, that the Comelec needed a “global company that has held elections in other countries.” The logic being that no company would risk its reputation by allowing itself to be co-opted by local politicians.

Smartmatic, which claims to have conducted elections in the US, Asia, Latin America, and the Caribbean, appears to fit the bill. In 2008, the company conducted the first automated elections in the Philippines (in the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao) albeit using a different, more expensive technology.

The Secretary says that with the proper fail safes (like a 12-hour battery with spare in case of blackouts, for one) all that's left is to tell the Comelec to “make it as clean as you can and make few mistakes;” something that is admittedly a great gamble for the Philippines.

But Chua believes that the country owes it to itself to finally give modern, credible elections a go. If the automated elections, Philippine-style, breaks down, what then? “You can still count the ballots manually,” Chua quips.

Print ed: 10/09

 

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