Democracy at stake: The need for poll system standards and certification
Nelson Celis, TMT / February 19, 2020
Posted by CenPEG March 08, 2020

First of 3 parts

CERPP Feb 11 2020
Hearing of the Senate committee on electoral reform and people’s participation last Feb. 11, 2020. (CenPEG photo)

IN a hearing last week of the Senate Committee on Electoral Reforms and People’s Participation led by Sen. Maria Imelda Josefa “Imee” Marcos, I was surprised to hear that the test certification of Precinct Count Optical Scan (PCOS) machines or vote counting machines, would only need some machines to undergo thorough quality assurance tests as is the practice in the automobile industry. This was the response when I said the test certification activities conducted by the Department of Science and Technology (DoST) for all the supposedly 2004 counting and canvassing machines were tested comprehensively (even at different environmental temperatures), covering not just some machines but all the machines to be used. I could only surmise that the test certifications in the last four national and local elections resulted in a lot of technical problems because of the absence or lack of test certifications of all the Automated Election System (AES) components. I even cited in the hearing that the 2010 PCOS machines were test-certified by an international certifying entity (ICE), but conked out during the final testing and sealing due to erroneous counting of votes; that means, there was no quality assurance with the applied methodology of the said body vis standard and scientific method used by the DoST in 2003! Think that provision of the law stipulating ICE be amended and be replaced by the DoST, together with local auditing firms.

Root causes

The non-promulgation of the rules and regulations (IRR) of Republic Act (RA) 8436, as amended by RA 9369, by the Comelec is one of the root causes of their non-compliances or violations of that law. The IRR should have defined how and why the law should be complied with, like the use of standards explained by Maricor Akol, a National Citizens’ Movement for Free Elections official and AES Watch convener, in her article “Democracy at stake: The need for standards and certification” from the book published by the Center for People Empowerment in Governance in 2013 titled Was Your Vote Counted? Unveiling the Myths About PH Automated Elections. Though her article was written before the 2013 elections, it is very much related to the 2016 and 2019 elections, and quite applicable to the 2022 elections and beyond.

Following is the article by Akol:

Automated election myths

“The first Philippine automated elections held last May 10, 2010 was a truly controversial one; the final verdict on its success or failure depends on the perspective of the observer. It cannot be hailed as a successful exercise we can be proud of, but it cannot also be called a total failure either since the proclamation of most elected officials was accepted by the electorate.

“The glitches and lapses that were reported on Election Day may be considered as the birth pangs of a system adopted for the first time in nationwide, synchronized elections. But a discerning public will surely not be fooled to accept it lock, stock and barrel, especially when the same system is used for a second time — in the May 2013 elections.

“Fear of a violent backlash and people disgruntled with election results rioting in the streets should encourage a professional, sober and scientific development of standards to ensure that the voting system that Comelec implements and the public will use works accurately and reliably.

“Standards depict a way of practice. It allows people to see what is to be done, how it is to be done, and what measurable results or outputs to expect. As such, when the action or input does not measure up to expected results, corrections can and should be done in the preparation, implementation, and production of such outputs.

“In the 2010 elections, however, the standards could have been the basis for deliberation (what should people do), monitoring (what are people doing now) and remediating (what can we do to improve, speed up and correct or continue) people’s actions and result-producing activities.

“When there are no standards agreed upon from the start and monitored in the process of operating the system, every party or player will use his best judgment and/or influence public and private opinion to pursue corrective or contingency actions.

“Such was the case in the May 2010 automated elections. In that political exercise, the Comelec and the technology provider awarded for the poll automation were in the frontline news to answer, address and legitimize their messages using the language engineering of ‘under control,’ ‘will be attended to,’ ‘is already resolved’ or ‘just trust the machine.’ Their virtual monopoly of media exposure allowed them to create public perceptions about the ‘astounding success’ of the first automated elections.

“On the other hand, the Comelec-Smartmatic team was deemed to fail or rated as in dangers as a result of their poor response to the criticism and demands posed by civic groups, which were working for transparency and accuracy in the Automated Election System.

“Why many questions on the AES implementation were raised — often left unanswered — could be due to the absence of a common understanding and agreement on what was to be expected of the AES. The ‘expected results’ were quite clear: people expected honest, clean and peaceful elections. But how to address these public expectations was more of a dream rather than a clear, well-defined action.

“What the Comelec should have done first was to arrive at an agreement on the final make-up and shape of the AES as it will be seen, appreciated, touched and finally implemented in this country. Why did this not happen? There are two reasons: first, the Comelec itself did not and could not comprehend what the system would be like before, during and after it had been implemented; and second, the Comelec did not have enough ICT (information and communications technology) expertise as a poll body tasked to automate the elections — thus its complete reliance on the foreign technology provided. This is like saying that a bank, which is in the finance sector, does not have in its ranks banking and finance experts nor IT (information technology) experts to computerize its transactions.

Standards needed

“What then are the standards that should be developed? What standards need to be put in place if we are to try our hand again at automating the next elections?

“Setting up standards for understanding (a common language), communicating (agreed channels and avenues), monitoring (acceptable measure, and reporting) and remediating (official responsibilities) are needed in the implementation of the AES. Without these standards put in place the Comelec will again be groping in the dark — or will just be evasive and resort to doomsday tagging — as it engages the many organizations trooping to its doors proposing legally compliant and internationally acceptable sets of criteria, approach, strategy and solutions on how to implement that AES.

“The Election System Standards are documented criteria specified as the minimum requirements needed to ensure that the AES, whether paper-based or otherwise, will deliver accurate, reliable, secure, and auditable results. These standards should include functional criteria of all components of the system, a complete documentation of what the system is expected to do but not how it is to be done.

“Listed below are proposed standards that are needed to be included in the AES (must have standards):

(To be continued)
Dr. Nelson J. Celis is a Fellow of the Center for People Empowerment in Governance (CenPEG) and spokesperson of the broad mutilsectoral election watchgroup, Automated Election System Watch (AES Watch) formed in 2010.

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