The PCOS (Precinct Count Optical Scan) has been heralded in media by COMELEC as being able to raise the accuracy of election results to 99.995% accuracy, that is “one error out of 20,000 markings’. [Philippine Daily Inquirer, 19 May 2009]. Or stated differently, chances are that the machine cannot read 5 filled-up ballots in 100,000 cases. Would this then be the end of problems with automation? Actually, no.
Let me raise my concerns first about the non-automated aspects of the ‘fully-automated’ elections, – the ballot. And the voters.
The COMELEC Request for Proposal document requires that ‘each side of the ballot sheet should be able to accommodate at least 300 names of candidates with a minimum font size of 10’.
Presumably, on one side of the ballot will be the names of the candidates for President, Vice President, Senator, Party-list and, now, a possible question on Charter Change of whatever variation. On the other side will be the names of the candidates for Congress, Governor, Vice Governor, Board member, Mayor, Vice Mayor, and Councilor.
The number of distinct master ballots would then be about 1600, roughly the total number of cities and municipalities, considering the elections at the local level. The distribution must be precise since each city or municipality will have a specific ballot for its voters. Ballots can easily be sent to wrong destinations, knowingly or unknowingly. The possibility of disenfranchisement of voters of the two places where the wrong ballots would be sent is not far-fetched. In the previous elections, the ballots were all the same as the voter writes the name of their candidaters on the blanks in the ballots. In the forthcoming automated elections the names will be preprinted. [I wonder how sample ballots would look like.]
It is imperative that the printing of ballots, some 50 million, should be precise. As explained in Wikipedia (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Optical_answer_sheet), “a more serious error is incorrect printing such that all ovals are read as filled, even if this is not the case”. This error arose in the case of 19,000 absentee ballots in the county of Gwinnett, Georgia, during the 2008 US presidential election. The outline of the ovals was found to be too thick or irregular. This slight difference was discovered during a test run made late in October 2008 since it was not apparent to the naked eye.
In the field, or in the public school classroom, it would be difficult to keep the forms dirt-free, dust-free, and at specified humidity content. Understandably, the form may not be read properly because of the “shading” caused by dirt, dust, smudges, and the like.
Can the COMELEC and the Smartmatic consortium train at least 30 million voters (who actually voted in 2007) to correctly mark the ovals corresponding to the candidates of their choice in a two-sided ballot with at least a hundred names on each side of font size 10? Voters need to be trained to shade to cover each distinct oval or box and not stray to the adjacent ones; otherwise, the machine will reject the ballot.
Can you imagine the situation when everyone at the precinct, — voters, watchers, teachers, — can read the contents of the filled-out ballot but the PCOS cannot? If the PCOS rejects a filled-up ballot for various reasons, how would the voter’s choices be counted? Will the ballot be a spoiled one? What if these spoilages would not be far and few, and not be random?
C. Legal Precedent
In the Loong v. Comelec case (April 14, 1999) cited by former Chief Justice Panganiban, the COMELEC ordered the stoppage of the automated counting in the entire province of Sulu when the machine did not count three ballots wherein the COMELEC officials noticed that the oval space opposite the name of a candidate in Pata, Sulu (a part of the ARMM) was shaded but the ovals were not properly aligned to the candidate’s printed name. As a result, all the ballots cast in the entire province were brought to the COMELEC headquarters in Manila for manual counting.
Chief Justice Panganiban dissented from the majority decision in Loong v. Comelec to uphold the COMELEC’s manual count of the automated ballots. He cited as his main reason that, “there were no rules on how to manually count electronic ballots. The rules on manual counting could not be used in appreciating automated ballots…They were good, for instance, in determining whether a ballot was written by one hand or two hands, but not in appreciating the voter’s intent via the mere shading of pre-printed ballots.”
I think that the probability that at least 5 ballots will be misprinted, or wrongly filled up, and as a result cannot be read by the PCOS in a municipality would be rather high. I would rather be wrong than right on this because true NO-EL or NO-PROC may just happen unless COMELEC prepares for manual counting as well.
Finally, the COMELEC entirely depends on the winning bidder, Total Information Management (TIM)/ Smartmatic, to install and implement a technology that it has little knowledge of and that has been strongly objected to by some information technology (IT) practitioners with long experience in processing election returns.