The threat to 2010 elections

Murphy’s Law: a threat to 2010 elections
By Solita Collas-Monsod
Philippine Daily Inquirer

MAYBE it is because the Commission on Elections keeps on making reassuring noises and the TV infomercials cum “voter education” make it sound so simple and fool-proof, but the average Juan on the street—as well as a heck of a lot of the ABC group—seems to think that with the automated election system in place, not only will we know the national election results within four days instead of 40 days, but also election cheating will be a thing of the past.

That is an illusion that we have to disabuse ourselves of before we come to grief. The sooner the better. We have to realize that those two much-desired situations will come to pass if and only if:

1. The electorate are free to vote for the candidates of their choice, with no one being excluded from their polling places, with no intimidation or other forms of pressure being applied on them. (Notice that I am excluding the buying of votes—there is no intimidation or pressure involved there, but rather a transaction freely entered into by buyer and seller.)

2. That their votes are properly counted—which in turn requires that the counting machines have not been tampered with, that they are in place, and that they are in proper working order.

Those are heroic assumptions. And are also in a collision course with Murphy’s Law, which simply states that if anything can go wrong, it will. Let’s look at those conditions.

First, even assuming that the second set of conditions obtain, i.e., that the machines are in place, untampered with (“internal rigging”), and are in working condition, several things could go wrong. Some examples that come to mind: (a) the voters’ names may have been excluded from the voters’ lists—automation has nothing to do with the voters’ lists being generated, and therefore cannot guarantee the inclusion of all voters.

Then, (b) the voters may be living in an area controlled by political warlords who either order them to vote for a certain slate or suffer the physical consequences; or order them to stay at home, because their ballots will already have been filled up for them. This is exactly what has happened in areas like Maguindanao and other ARMM provinces. How else can one explain how Luis Chavit Singson topped the senatorial list in Maguindanao in 2007, and Panfilo Lacson got not one single vote? Beyond all statistical probabilities.

Worse is yet to come: (c) even if a voter is able to vote, she may make a mistake in filling up her ballot—e.g., not shading properly the ovals for her candidates (shading outside the oval, or shading too little, less than 50 percent of the oval)—or in accidentally smudging the ballot. In which case, the unforgiving machine will spit this out and, worse, an unforgiving Comelec has already decreed that it will not provide a new ballot to replace the spoiled one. This Comelec decree, by the way is in direct contravention of Sec. 197 of the Omnibus Election Code, which allows the voter to change a spoiled ballot not once, but twice.

Now, on the second set of conditions, which focus on voting and counting machines themselves: How can Murphy’s Law operate here?

First, it must be pointed out that the machines themselves can be rigged internally, either through the source code, or the mother board, or by implanting a chip. The cheating that can be done through tampering with the machines (done in the factory)—puts the “dagdag-bawas” to shame. Nothing so clumsy as erasing numbers and substituting others. With the machines, the orders to add and/or subtract can be time-specific: Start at 10 a.m., end at 6 p.m. With a kicker: the instructions can self-destruct, again at a specified time.

Note: I am told the latest automation law, Republic Act 9369, has put in safeguards against these practices—but the Comelec either hasn’t put them in place or seems to be deliberately misinterpreting them, just as it misinterprets the Omnibus Election Code’s provision on spoiled ballots.

Comes the next set of things that can go wrong, per Murphy’s Law: even if the machines are “clean,” they may not be ready, or in place, by election day. As of today, the Comelec is already more than a month behind its self-imposed schedule.

Then there is a third set of possibilities—this on election day itself. A machine may not be properly calibrated. Or, it may break down. And if one thinks that this will be caused by power outages, think again. For example, some “malicious” politician who feels that he will lose in a certain precinct, can arrange for one of his supporters to put some epoxy or even bubble gum on his ballot—and goodbye machine, for the rest of the day.

So many other things can go wrong. And yet the Comelec seems to be so confident about the outcome that it reportedly has no “Plan B” in its draft General Instructions.

But can the Comelec do something to mitigate some of the problems? Of course! For one, it has to admit that, given the delay, automated elections cannot be held everywhere and, this early, determine where manual elections are to be held. For two, it can arrange (as provided by law) to have a random manual precinct count per congressional district, to validate the machine count. And for three, it can purchase high-speed ballot counting machines from a separate source, installing two in each province/city, that will do a parallel count of the ballots (this will cost less than P60 million)—an audit count, for short.

The ProPinoy Project