Star wars log – the return of the PCOS

The age-old problem

Since the 2010 elections, there has been the danger of a re-cranking of the machinery to fix elections, something all can admit as an open secret in the decades before automation. Then it was called dagdag bawas, and every insider knew how it worked. We now have draconian laws criminalizing electoral sabotage, but the crime is a conspiracy that is hard to prove unless an insider sings. We need to invent a videoke machine for them, along with a truth serum to spike their beer. I hear there’s a new brew called San Migz Light; it will at the right moment make you admit there is cheating, and at another moment allow you to proclaim you had no part in it. Even better, imbibing it will allow you to run for election all over again, just like nothing happened! Of course, if you believe the Rules on Evidence, the first is an admission, the second a neat self-serving statement.

The ‘nightmare’

The 2010 PCOS was a nightmare and it is back. It is being sold as a dream by the Comelec today, just as it was so sold by the then Comelec pre-May 2010. The nightmare is that no one knows for sure if cheating took place. We are left with the zombie equivalent of voter prozac. We have to take as maintenance medication the presumed innocence and regularity of our officials and election paraphernalia/services providers. We have no choice. They have their constitutional rights. Still, Prof. Monsod thinks it’s a shame.

The signs of the recurring nightmare are nicely set up as ‘praning’ moments by Angela Stuart Santiago. Butch del Castillo correctly points out the two basic weaknesses of PCOS, which seemingly are not being corrected as of this writing.

One, the random manual audit came too late to be of any use; and its lateness is the key to allowing the dagdag-bawas dromedary back into the tent. If you do a proper random audit early and before proclamation, the cheats will have enormous difficulty hiding their tracks. Do it late, and life is good. Too good to be true, which makes the likes of Mar Roxas wish he lived in another universe.

Two, the idea that the source code should be kept a trade secret is hogwash. Software can be set up as open source and that was the intent of the automation law (Android and Linux are the prime examples). There is nothing in the automation laws that gave Smartmatic the right to keep the code a secret, and yet that is how the matter has been sold to the gullible – i.e. you and me. We can sigh and say that that’s how the statutory construction game is played. Even non-malicious minds will likely think of a zillion other things, but never mind – thinking is not a crime. Talking about it may however expose you to a libel suit, but then Ninez Cacho-Olivares is fearless. So, many of our lips are sealed, just like those no-maintenance battery wonders of the modern car.

The problem of civic duty

I first thought of automating the elections as an almost no-brainer if our techies are that good. And I believe they are. The only hitch was that we needed the banks to let us rent their ATM machines once every three years. An ATM machine is the most secure bullet-proof machine tested in the battlefield of robberies, etc. What better tool to use to take and keep sacred the voters’ pulse? But alas, there are no juicy contracts to be made there. Our smart techies are not good enough to organize themselves, and our banks don’t see a civic duty that stares them in their faces. The one significant objection to the ATM then and now is that ATMs don’t exist in the hinterlands; the good answer is that a manual election or a cut-down clean version of the PCOS would work there.

Move for reconsideration

So there you are. We’re apparently stuck with machines that may turn out to be too expensive if only because they will have become obsolete very soon (if not already), and of course for 2013 we need to use them with the appropriate software. Smartmatic has first dibs on software since only they know the innards from day one through the trade-secrecy route. What a nice potential ‘mess’ we have, courtesy of Comelec. I feel for Gus Lagman even if I have never met the man. Still, that’s a good argument for reconsideration. Staying with the Smartmatic PCOS – partly because Comelec took its sweet time not planning early for a new round of bidding for 2013 – violates not only Equal Protection but also the anti-graft laws because it would give an undue advantage to one supplier.

But there is yet one reason but this time not to reconsider, and it is not a legal matter. It has to do with those who like PCOS because they won in 2010. Whether they know something fishy or not is of no moment. What matters is that one part belongs to the LP, the other to UNA. Now, imagine the bidding wars that would clandestinely be conducted if cheating can be done through software. This is more excitement than a Bond flic. Do we need all that excitement in 2013? One wag said, yes, of course. We just finished an impeachment, and there’s nothing to do mid-afternoons nowadays. FOI and RH are, after all, pretty boring. So, let the excitement of not knowing begin.

P.S. What to do in an emergency

Let us assume that the Comelec and Smartmatic get their way, and still we’re crazy enough to want to protect ourselves. What can be done?

One, ensure that the random manual audit is strictly enforced, even expanded. There is time enough for any necessary corrective legislation on this. This helps to ensure the PCOS machine can’t cheat the precinct count.

Two, don’t rely only on the PCOS and the Comelec tabulation of the canvass. Every PCOS result can and should also be transmitted using low-tech basic cell phones that can transmit encrypted data only to secure parallel websites (one is the Comelec, the other are those of interested political parties and election watchdogs). This helps to ensure there’s no dagdag bawas in the transmission from the PCOS machine.

Three, if we can’t do the second thing above, then it’s up to the election watchdogs and every candidate to ensure their poll watchers transmit, in real time, what the PCOS counts, and that they are given ample time, prior to any proclamation, to protest the official Comelec/HRET/SET canvass. No more of the “Noted” nonsense of yesteryears. At the impeachment proceedings, even Sen. Pangilinan seems to have seen the light (good for him).

These redundancy features are cheap and eminently doable. If they do not emerge, it’s likely because we’re too weak to resist those folks who are in on a fix that we can never prove. And it will be our collective fault for allowing the nightmare to recur.

UPDATE and CLARIFICATION (as of June 20, 2012):
The contract recently signed between Comelec and Smartmatic-TIM includes, according to the Supreme Court decision, “hardware and software.”  This means that the PCOS comes bundled with software, in much the same way that a PC comes with Windows or Linus or a Mac OS.  However, it appears that there are other related services that, according to Chair Brillantes, will be put for public bidding.  One of these services is for the “handling of the configuration system” of the PCOS.  It seems that this is a situation where an independent supplier (other than Smartmatic) can bid to configure the ballot format and the CF cards (although I cannot be certain of this).  In the news report, Chair Brillantes has remarked that Smartmatic’s winning the bid for this system is “highly possible.”

Question: How can a potential bidder be placed on a level playing field vis-a-vis Smartmatic when the contract up for bid is that for the handling of the configuration system?

One thought on “Star wars log – the return of the PCOS

  1. Just a link, courtesy of Angela Stuart Santiago:

    The technical questions are put up well; they are the kind to which the Comelec for transparency should have ready answers.

    But perhaps we can go a step further. Why not delegate the ‘process’ audit to a reputable accounting/auditing firm on contract with the Comelec? Such a process audit would be separate from the random manual audit. It would be just like Miss Philippines, where some well-dressed rep of a big accounting firm certifies that he counted or supervised the vote tally, and hands the envelope to the show host.

    Jing Paras also weighs in at: He thinks what’s happening at the Supreme Court is either the result of a mandate from the Palace or a “bought” decision. The problem is still that of the Sore Loser Syndrome – the winner gets to ride the presumption of regularity to force the loser to move heaven and earth to prove the machine wrong. Res ipsa loquitur is somehow useless as a rule of evidence. But karmic justice can sometimes bite, so we get to wait for the next telenovela episode.


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