Voting machines fail

Voting machines fail
76,000 memory cards to be replaced
By Michael Lim Ubac, Tarra Quismundo, Kristine L. Alave
Philippine Daily Inquirer

MANILA, Philippines—Now, it can be told officially. The tests produced weird results.

This sent embarrassed officials of the Commission on Elections (Comelec) and its partner, Smartmatic-TIM, scrambling to save the historic computerized balloting on May 10 by recalling 76,000 compact flash (CF) cards that are in the heart of the counting machines.

“We didn’t expect this to come out, but we are responding on time,” Cesar Flores, spokesperson for Smartmatic-TIM, at a nationally televised news conference said.

Flores blamed the glitches, which first surfaced in two precinct count optical scan (PCOS) machines last month at the start of advance overseas voting in Hong Kong, on “human error.”

“We are taking all measures to remedy this,” Flores said, just five days before the May 10 national and local elections.

“We are optimistic that there will be no failure of elections,” said Commissioner Rene Sarmiento. “We are taking all measures to remedy this.”

“I will not be honest if I will say that my confidence has not been diminished because, as I said, what will happen next?” said Henrietta de Villa, chair of the Parish Pastoral Council for Responsible Voting (PPCRV), the Comelec’s citizen’s arm.

In mock elections on Monday conducted by the Comelec and Smartmatic-TIM in six towns in Occidental Mindoro, votes for presidential candidates Manny Villar and Benigno “Noynoy” Aquino III were counted for Gilberto Teodoro Jr. of the administration party, according to the Nacionalista Party (NP).

This prompted supporters of Villar led by his NP spokesperson and senatorial candidate Gilbert Remulla to rush to the Comelec office in Manila to file a complaint.

Automated cheating?

Remulla showed to reporters a tally sheet from the PCOS and a manual count.

“There were five votes for Villar, five votes for Aquino, but when it came out (in the machine), there were no votes for Villar, no votes for Noynoy and 10 votes for Teodoro,” Remulla said.

“Is this automated cheating?” he asked, adding that the inability of the machines to properly count the votes in the mock elections proved persistent talk of a failure of elections.

Comelec officials reported that in tests in three far-flung towns of Cuyo, Magsaysay and Brooke’s Point in Palawan province, the machines only read portions of the ballots containing the names of candidates for national races, according to the Inquirer’s Southern Luzon Bureau.

Similar problems occurred in tests in the provinces of Bataan and Pampanga.

Flores said that the eleventh-hour glitch surfaced Monday during testing and sealing of machines in 50 to 100 precincts to show that the automated election system is working and has no malicious data.

Cards to be replaced

He said the problem was in the flash cards, equivalent to the SIM card in cell phones.

Although the company has no final numbers on defective compact flash cards, it is moving to replace the memory cards for all the 76,000 PCOS machines already sent to regional hubs for field distribution, according to Flores.

Present at the news conference were representatives from the Comelec Advisory Council (CAC) and its technical evaluation committee, and Makati City Rep. Teodoro Locsin Jr., one of the co-chairs of the Congressional Oversight Committee on the Automated Elections.

The wrong tallies stemmed from the memory cards, Flores said.

He noted that the cards contained wrong “instruction” regarding the local ballot face that caused the PCOS machines to give “contradictory” readings of the names and the votes for the local contests.

Officials said the PCOS machine read the races for the national posts correctly.

Precinct-specific cards

Each PCOS machine contains a compact flash card which has the details on the specific precinct. It has the number of voters per precinct and the names of the candidates vying for local posts, among others.

For the ballots, which are precinct specific, to be read and recorded correctly, the program inside the card and the software inside the PCOS machine must work together.

During the printing of the ballots, the spacing of the local ballot face was adjusted to double space from single space, the formatting used for the national contests.

This change was not included in the compact flash card, Flores said. As such, the PCOS machine read the local ballot face as if it had a single-space format, causing the machine to wrongly allot votes to certain candidates or skip other names.

“The flash cards inside the PCOS were not able to locate certain candidates to positions,” Flores explained.

“For some reason, the configuration was telling the machine that the second row visually is actually the third row,” he said. The next row was read as a “blank space,” he said.

Who’s to blame?

Although there had been several mock elections and the PCOS machines were tested before they were dispatched, the problem was not discovered until Monday, Flores said.

He said that the ballots used in the mock elections and in the warehouse testing had different faces from the ballots that would be used on May 10.

Flores blamed the Comelec for the snafu, saying the poll body did not want to use real ballots to test the PCOS machines. The Comelec was authorized to print no more than 50.7 million ballots, the number of registered voters.

Commissioner Gregorio Larrazabal said Smartmatic-TIM had 20,000 flash cards on hand, which they had started to configure with the right instructions.

The company has also ordered more memory cards from local and overseas suppliers, he added.

Flores said the problem was “surmountable.” Correcting the instruction on the memory cards is “easy,” he said, adding that the challenge the company and the Comelec face is on the delivery of these cards to the precincts.

‘It will be done’

Although the schedule was “tight,” Flores said the company would be able to change the compact flash cards starting Wednesday night.

“It is a tight schedule but it can be done and it will be done,” he said.

As of Tuesday, the Comelec and Smartmatic-TIM had yet to finalize the delivery of the replacement cards.

Larrazabal said the Comelec was devising a procedure for the orderly recall of the flash cards to allow for an inventory. He said the Comelec would probably destroy the defective cards recalled.

Pending the replacement, the Comelec and Smartmatic canceled the testing and sealing of the PCOS machines.

Flores said the operation would resume on Thursday and Friday. Machines that will not pass the testing and sealing will not be used on May 10, he said.

New round of tests

Under the law, the testing and sealing operation of the PCOS machines is scheduled three to seven days before the elections.

“The machines from Tuesday will be tested again on Thursday. Some on May 7. All machines will be tested before Election Day,” Larrazabal said.

CAC chair Ray Roxas Chua said he did not expect defective memory cards to cause delays in the last-minute election preparations.

“We are not sugarcoating this. This is definitely a setback, but one that is not insurmountable,” said Chua, who is also information and communications technology secretary.

De Villa said she had received several calls and text messages from volunteers reporting problems with the PCOS machines in Pasay, Parañaque, Makati, Pasig and Las Piñas, and Batangas and Mindoro.

“Most of the complaints were PCOS failure, PCOS did not count, PCOS counted national (votes for national candidates) but could not read the local, all candidates for mayor except one,” De Villa said.

Problem can be fixed

She said that the Comelec had vowed to fix the problems. She expressed confidence in the automated polls and disagreed to proposals to hold a total manual count of election results. “It will just be confusing,” she said.

“And how can you validate a system with a process that is also corrupted? We wanted to automate because we were so unhappy with the manual system that has been corrupted, so why are we validating a new system with a corrupted system?” De Villa told reporters.

In the provinces, officials said unexpected problems arose during the testing and sealing of the vote-counting machines, prompting the suspension of their distribution. They said the Comelec office in Manila had sent instructions that technicians would be sent instead to fix the problems.

In San Jose, Occidental Mindoro, acting election officer Perlita Villanca told local radio dzVT that the testing and sealing of the PCOS machines had been deferred. PPCRV volunteers reported that in Magsaysay, Sta. Cruz and Sablayan towns, the machines did not count votes for a congressional candidate.

In San Fernando, the Comelec recalled PCOS machines in Central Luzon after 95 percent of some 700 units used in tests in Pampanga and Bataan failed to count votes for local candidates.

Officials said the distribution of machines in Cebu, Negros Occidental, Zamboanga del Sur, in Region IV, composed of Cavite, Laguna, Batangas, Quezon, Mindoro, Marinduque, Romblon and Palawan had been ordered suspended.

Comelec Director Juanito Icaro said the advice from the Comelec national office was only “to stay put” and technicians would be sent instead. With reports from Redempto D. Anda, Marrah Erika Lesaba, Maricar P. Cinco, Fernan Gianan, Mar Arguelles and Madonna T. Virola, Inquirer Southern Luzon; Carla Gomez and Nestor Burgos Jr. and Jhunnex Napallacan, Inquirer Visayas; Ryan D. Rosauro and Julie S. Alipala, Inquirer Mindanao; Tonette Orejas, Charlene Cayabyab, Carmela Reyes-Estrope and Anselmo Roque, Inquirer Central Luzon; and Delmar Cariño and Charles Keith, Inquirer Northern Luzon

Karen Ang

A plebeian who is trying to make small changes in this world.