No end to ‘horror’ tales 6 days to polls

No end to ‘horror’ tales 6 days to polls
By Leila B. Salaverria
Philippine Daily Inquirer

MANILA, Philippines—Misaligned ovals and ultraviolet security marks. Untested servers, modems and websites.

There’s no dearth of reasons to worry about the credibility of the country’s first automated elections with just a week away, officials of the poll watchdog Kontra Daya said at a news conference Monday.

Kontra Daya, which groups church, civil society and militant organizations, said the servers that would receive and store results fed by the precinct count optical scan (PCOS) machines in the field had not been submitted for testing and certification.

The servers will be used not only by the Commission on Elections (Comelec) during the May 10 balloting, but also its partners such as the Kapisanan ng mga Brodkaster sa Pilipinas.

Also untested are the PCOS modem firmware, the ballot production toll and the public website where results of the voting in the 76,000 precincts will be posted, the group said. The data could then be used to double check the tally.

Kontra Daya said that the deficiencies were disclosed in a March 5 memo of Comelec’s technical evaluation committee, which is tasked to certify that the components of the automated election system are operating properly, securely and accurately.

The group said the Comelec should explain why these “crucial items” were not tested and certified as required by law.

Kontra Daya also disclosed that the review of the US-based computer firm SysTest Lab on the source code, which is the set of instructions to be followed by the counting machine, showed that there were 23 minor problems in the code.

Kontra Daya convenor Rodolfo Lozada Jr., an IT engineer, said the lack of testing and certification of the automation components showed that the elections were being done unlawfully, and this could lead to the political exercise being wasted.

“Does this mean the results would also be unlawful?” Lozada said during a press conference. “All we’ve done might be wasted because the implementation of the law creating the automated election system was not done.”

Lozada blew the whistle on alleged bribery and overpricing in the $329-million National Broadband Network deal with China to electronically wire the nation’s bureaucracy that was subsequently scuttled by President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo.

Result doubtful without test

Scientist Giovanni Tapang voiced concern at the lack of testing and certification.

“Even if the PCOS machines are working well, we are not sure if the end result would be correct,” Tapang said.

“The weakest link of a chain are those parts that were not tested. Even if the other parts are working, but there is a weakest link, there would be problems,” he added.

Tapang noted that there may not be time to take legal action against the Comelec. He said the people would have to be vigilant at every step of the electoral process, right up to the national canvassing level.

As for the source code, Rick Bahague of Kontra Daya and the Computer Professionals Union said that although SysTest Lab said the problems were “minor,” these could still cause problems, especially if safeguards are not in place.

Bahague said that these minor problems could cause data corruption. Even if a vote is recorded in the precinct, it could disappear when the results reach the canvassing centers.

Data corruption feared

According to Kontra Daya, one of the issues that SysTest raised was that the election data may not always be properly encrypted before being stored, and the certificate of canvass and statement of votes are not always encrypted before transmission.

“Erroneous programming on the database can lead to serious problems in data corruption and integrity. Transmission of data is not always encrypted and this can be exploited to manipulate results,” Bahague said.

SysTest also noted that the source code may not properly record undervoting. This means that if a person chooses less than the required number of candidates for a particular position, the machine may not record the choices correctly, according to Bahague.

He noted that SysTest reported that the software inventory that Comelec’s automation partner Smartmatic-TIM provided was inadequate. SysTest also pointed out that security tokens could be turned off when data are being imported to the consolidation and canvassing system.

This means that the whole system might be accessed, Bahague said.

Misaligned ovals

Earlier, information technology expert Robert Verzola of Halalang Marangal raised the possibility that the ovals could be misaligned since the ultraviolet security marks in the ballots were misaligned during the printing.

The error in the ultraviolet mark printing has prompted the Comelec to purchase UV lamps so that these marks could be detected.

Verzola said that if the ovals are misaligned, the votes could be misread or not read at all, thus resulting in an inaccurate count of the votes.

Comelec spokesperson James Jimenez said that the poll body was looking at concerns raised by Kontra Daya and the other watchdog organizations.

He said that the independent certifying authority saw nothing wrong with the source code and downplayed concerns that the ovals in the ballots that voters need to shade could be misaligned, which could lead to an inaccurate counting of the votes.

Jimenez said all of the ballots that the poll body printed had passed through the PCOS machines to check if they would work properly.

There would also be a final sealing and testing of election paraphernalia to be conducted before the May 10 polls.

“The test ballots that we will use for testing and sealing are the same run of ballots that we’re actually going to use. So if there would be problems in the actual run [of ballots], these would show up during the testing and sealing,” Jimenez said. With a report from Maricar Cinco, Inquirer Southern Luzon

Palace to public: Help ensure success of automated polls

Palace to public: Help ensure success of automated polls
By Paolo Romero
The Philippine Star

MANILA, Philippines – Malacañang decried yesterday people spreading rumors of a failure of elections on May 10 and called on the public to remain vigilant and help the Commission on Elections (Comelec) ensure the successful conduct of the country’s first nationwide automated polls.

The Comelec, on the other hand, dismissed speculations of a failure of elections that could favor President Arroyo, saying it is considering an independent unofficial partial count of the election results.

Executive Secretary Leandro Mendoza commented on various allegations – including that of Liberal Party standard-bearer Sen. Benigno “Noynoy” Aquino III – that the Arroyo administration was planning to sabotage the polls to prolong its grip on power.

“We are doing everything to make these elections very credible and the last thing that we should have is a failure of elections. I don’t think that’s good for the country,” Mendoza said.

No failure of elections

Comelec Commissioner Gregorio Larrazabal, meanwhile, said the poll body is deliberating whether to allow the Parish Pastoral Council for Responsible Voting (PPCRV) and the Kapisan ng mga Broadcaster sa Pilipinas (KBP) to conduct a separate tally of the results of the May 2010 polls.

Larrazabal said the proposal is for the PPCRV and KBP to consolidate the election returns or tally data from the Comelec’s website.

“As soon as the precinct count optical scan (PCOS) machines transmit the results, we will make the data available in the website and to the majority and minority parties,” he said.

He, however, emphasized that the poll body is discussing ways to prevent the possibility of “trending,” which could affect the credibility of election results.

“The thrust is that we will be releasing data every so often to keep the people abreast of what is happening, but posting the running total will still be discussed,” the commissioner said.

The sum of all fears

The idea of a parallel count sits well with Nacionalista Party standard-bearer Sen. Manny Villar Jr., even as he admitted that he also had doubts about the automated system.

Sen. Edgardo Angara, on the other hand, reiterated his calls for the election of a new senate president to forestall “chaos after President Arroyo’s term expires on June 30.

“I have been in Mindanao lately and people there have been experiencing eight hours of power failure each day. If power shortage leads to automation failure in Mindanao, that’s 25 to 30 percent of votes gone,” he said.

Angara, who is one of the senators whose term lasts up to 2013, said that without results of the elections for national positions by noon of June 30 when the terms of the president, vice president, Senate president, and House speaker expire, “a frontier area will result, where he who has guns will be the winner.”

He noted that shifting to manual elections in problematic areas could also delay the results of elections for the national posts, amid the apparent lack of preparation of the Comelec and the political parties for manual counting.

Senate President Juan Ponce Enrile’s term ends this June, although he is seeking reelection.

Under the law, the Senate President is third in the order of succession to the presidency.

Angara said there is no question among his colleagues that the election of a new Senate president could assuage fears of a leadership vacuum.

There is also a possibility that the counting of votes for congressional and local candidates could be finished way ahead of those for national positions in the May elections, with Pres. Arroyo winning in Pampanga’s congressional race and being elected as House Speaker.

The speaker is fourth in the line of succession to the presidency.

Check Comelec expenditures

But the manual counting and the possible power vacuum in case of a failure of elections are not the only problems that need to be addressed, according to Senate Minority leader Aquilino Pimentel Jr.

Pimentel called on the Congressional Oversight Committee on Automated Election System to convene to help Comelec Chairman Jose Melo ensure the proper use of extra funds.

“There is so much money at the disposal of the Comelec that the temptation to provide operators with golden parachutes for their retirement is so great,” Pimentel said.

More than P2 billion was allocated for the cost of the election automation with Smartmatic aside from the P10 billion allotted for its operation under the national budget.

“For instance, the Comelec will have to deliver 76,340 ballot boxes to the election registrars of 120 cities and 1,501 municipalities. The total cost of transportation of those ballot boxes would sit at P519 million. That means that the cost of transportation per ballot box is P6,800,” he said. – With Mayen Jaymalin, Ding Cervantes, Christina Mendez, Rainier Allan Ronda, Perseus Echeminada, Eva Visperas

He added that there is unverified information that another P499 million has been set aside for the delivery of the ballot boxes to 1,600 treasurers throughout the country.

Perlas: Postpone the elections

But independent presidential candidate Nicanor Perlas is painting a grimmer scenario.

Perlas called for a postponement of the national elections by three months, doubting the poll body’s ability to pull off the automated elections.

He said the glitches that plagued the recent Hong Kong absentee voting serves as proof of the Comelec’s lack of readiness.

He also noted that calls are being made for a review of the indelible ink contract and bidding process and took notice that the Comelec admitted in a forum that the winners will not be known within 48 hours due to the sheer number of candidates.

“The way things are being handled by the Comelec, the automated system will be the black hole of the election. Pushing through with the May 10 elections will just further plunge the country into chaos that is potentially violent,” he said.

Partido ng Masang Pilipino senatorial bet Jose de Venecia III, for his part, said the Comelec should remove its blinders and stop pretending that a “failure of elections scenario” is inconceivable. – Mayen Jaymalin, Ding Cervantes, Christina Mendez, Rainier Allan Ronda, Perseus Echeminada, Eva Visperas

GMA replacing officials en masse

GMA replacing officials en masse
By Paolo Romero and Pia Lee-Brago
The Philippine Star

MANILA, Philippines – After getting the green light from the Supreme Court (SC) to appoint the next chief justice, President Arroyo has apparently gone on an appointing spree, naming an ambassador, several officials of government agencies, and replacing the entire boards of two cultural institutions with barely three months left in her term and despite the constitutional ban on midnight appointments.

In what some quarters are calling a pre-election “massacre,” the entire boards as well as the heads of the National Museum and the National Historical Institute (NHI), both agencies under the Office of the President, were changed, with most of them not even knowing they had been replaced.

The President also appointed business tycoon Alfonso Yuchengco, 86, as ambassador to Germany, with current Ambassador Delia Domingo-Albert learning about it only when she went to Malacañang last Friday to receive an award from a women’s business group.

Sources said Mrs. Arroyo told Albert, a career diplomat and former secretary of foreign affairs, that she had appointed Yuchengco as the new envoy to Germany when Abert sought confirmation of rumors she had heard. Albert is set to retire from the foreign service in June.

“We have learned of Yuchengco’s appointment but we have not received official copy of his appointment. Ambassador Albert stays so far,” a ranking official of the Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA) told The STAR.

The same official pointed out Mrs. Arroyo clearly violated the ban on appointments during the election period.

Article VII Sec. 15 of the Constitution says, “Two months before the next presidential elections and up to the end of his term, a President or Acting President shall not make appointments, except temporary appointments to executive positions when continued vacancies therein will prejudice public service or endanger public safety.”

Retired journalist Larry Henares assumed the chairmanship of the National Museum, replacing businessman Antonio Cojuangco, who was not told that he had been replaced. The new National Museum board reportedly met at the Palace yesterday afternoon and elected Malacañang Museum director Jeremy Barns as the new museum director, replacing Cora Alvina.

The other members of the board were not identified, but Senate and House representatives to the museum board, Sen. Manuel Roxas II and Marikina Rep. Del de Guzman, were reportedly not informed of or invited to the board meeting.

The board members and executive director of the NHI were also reportedly replaced, but the names of the new appointees were not revealed. It was not clear whether NHI chairman Ambeth Ocampo was also replaced.

Last December, Mrs. Arroyo appointed Cebu Rep. Antonio Cuenco and businessman Francisco Benedicto as ambassadors to Italy and China, respectively.

The appointments raised a howl among career officials who pointed out that Cuenco and Benedicto would only serve as envoys for less than six months, co-terminus with the remaining term of office of President Arroyo until June 30.

The Union of Foreign Service Officers (Unifors) also reminded the President that Benedicto is already 65 years old, and his appointment would violate Section 23 of the Foreign Service Act.

Mrs. Arroyo also appointed Assistant Secretary Rommel Garcia, deputy director for operations, to replace Clarence Paul Oaminal as vice chairman of the Dangerous Drug Board (DDB).

Oaminal, for his part, said he was surprised by the appointment but stressed he is not contesting his sudden removal on the orders of the President.

“I know that if the late (Press) Secretary (Cerge) Remonde were alive today, I would not have been replaced the way it was done,” Oaminal lamented.

He said he was so busy going after illegal drugs and drug lords, “I forgot to watch my back.”

Oaminal said he could not explain why he was suddenly replaced. He also learned that upon receiving the letter from Galvante, his removal from DBB was retroactive to March 5, which he said, was before the election ban on appointments that started March 10.

Mrs. Arroyo yesterday also appointed retired Court of Appeals Associate Justice Perlita Tria-Tirona to head the newly formed independent committee that will review all major tax evasion and smuggling cases dismissed by the Bureau of Internal Revenue (BIR) and the Bureau of Customs (BOC).

Other members of the Review Committee that were appointed include Kapisanan ng mga Brodkaster ng Pilipinas (KBP) vice chairman Butch Canoy, Publishers’ Association of the Philippines Inc. president Juan Dayang, Federation of Filipino-Chinese Chambers of Commerce and Industry Inc. president Alfonso Uygongco, and Philippine Exporters Confederation Inc. representative Oscar Barrera.

Mrs. Arroyo has also promoted Land Transportation Office (LTO) chief Arturo Lomibao as Undersecretary in the Department of Transportation and Communications (DOTC).

Executive Secretary Leandro Mendoza said on Wednesday that Land Transportation Franchising and Regulatory Board (LTFRB) chairman Alberto Suansing was appointed to replace Lomibao at the LTO.

LTO insiders said they were expecting the turnover of office between Lomibao and Suansing to be held yesterday.

Lomibao, however, appeared and immediately presided over a meeting of top officials of the agency.

Lomibao was said to have been able to prevail on the President to reverse the appointment but there were no officials who could confirm the report.

It was not yet clear who would replace Suansing at the LTFRB.

Earlier, former presidential political affairs adviser Gabriel Claudio was named chairman of the Metropolitan Waterworks and Sewerage System, replacing Oscar Garcia, who still retains his board seat.

The President also appointed retired Sandiganbayan justice Raoul Victorino as chief presidential legal counsel, replacing Natividad Dizon, who had held the post for only two weeks. Dizon was moved to the Board of Pardons and Parole.

Another short-lived appointment was that of Rogelio Peyuan, who was replaced as director general of the Technical Education and Skills Authority (TESDA) only a few days after he assumed office. He was moved to the Office of the Press Secretary. Former TESDA deputy director general for operations Pastor Guiao took over as director general.

Another controversial issue involved Undersecretary Ariston de los Reyes, who was relieved as Defense undersecretary, allegedly because his appointment as presidential assistant had lapsed.

Other appointments include veteran broadcast journalist Mario Garcia as member of the board of the Subic Bay Metropolitan Authority (SBMA) and Civil Service Commission head Francisco Duque III as member of the board of the Pag-IBIG Fund, although there was no vacancy in the Pag-IBIG board. With Jerry Botial