The COMELEC has taken the firm position that the pilot testing mandated by the Automated Election System Law recently signed by the President can no longer be implemented for lack of time. Despite being personally committed to automation, I am forced to agree.
So much to do and only a thimbleful of time to do it in
First off, there are only about four months left before elections. During that time, there is the unavoidable procurement-
development-and-testing-certification progression that must be considered. Procurement alone takes more than six months , and development and testing certification can easily take another 8-10 months. But considering the peculiar circumstances of the COMELEC, that’s not even all.
The new law – RA 9369 – is technology neutral, which means it doesn’t advocate the use of any one kind of election tech. This means that before we can do anything, we must first decide what tech to use: either optical mark reader technology (OMR) or direct recording electronic (DRE – like Diebold). That decision has not even been made yet, and it really isn’t as simple as tossing a coing.
The COMELEC makes that decision on the basis of the recommendation of the Advisory Council. And how long does that Council have to make the choice? The law doesn’t say, meaning the Council can take as long as it wants to. Even with the gorundwork we laid long before the AES law even darkened the President’s door, the choice remains hard to make. But assuming that the choice of tech is made as early as Monday the 29th, the next step that must be taken is the drawing up of the Terms of Reference and the specifications for the automated election system. How long will that take? In 2004, it took a dedicated team of experts nearly 18 months to complete the spec-sheet, what with all the arguments and the debates and the COMELEC insisting on statutory requirements that, often, did not make any sort of sense to the experts. Can we crash all that preparation time into 4 months?
Even assuming that we are able to squeeze TOR preparation into four months, that leaves us with the rest of the procurement-development-and-testing-certification processes to make time for. If we want all these things to fit within the window we now have, I suppose we have to squeeze TOR preparation into even less time, say 2 months. But what good would that do – apart from probably giving rise to a whole boatload of errors? Procurement alone takes more than 6 months. We asked the legislators to include, in the law, the authority for the COMELEC to undergo facilitated bidding, i.e., a short-cut version of the canonical bidding process. But that wasn’t done. So, we’re stuck with traditional bidding which, did I mention this before? takes more than six months.
Let’s assume for the sake of argument that we can simply lease the equipment necessary. Does leasing erase the need for making the technology choice? No, absolutely not. Does leasing eliminate the need to draft the TOR and the spec-sheet? No. The Philippine electoral system is pretty damned close to unique as makes no neffermind. This means that whatever system may be available for rent will still have to undergo a great deal of customization to make it useful here. And in order to do that, you have to be able to define what the Philippine electoral system’s specific requirements are, hence the spec-sheet.
But for the moment and for the sake of argument, let’s assume that all of that has been packed neatly into the 4-month implementation period, what does the law itself have to say about any other requirements? It says that there should be a stakeholder education program in place and functioning 6 months before election day. Let’s break that down.
Stakeholders refers to voters and political players and the media and NGOs. The law says that 6 months before the elections, all these people need to be comfortable enough with the system that they can at least use it with reasonable confidence. Is this mandatory, i.e., something that the law says must be done? The law isn’t clear on that but from the point of view of ensuring the success of the exercise, this voter ed requirement must be considered mandatory.
Voters who are not comfortable with the system may refuse to use it and thus be disenfranchised.
If they are uncomfortable but still decide to use it, they will take time. The very technical working group (TWG) that helped draft the AES bill conducted a time and motion study that showed that – even with a voting machine that was supposedly a no-brainer – most subjects took up to fifteen minutes to finish voting. Do the math. At one voter per quarter hour, you have 4 voters per hour. In a ten-hour voting day, that’s 40 voters. 40 voters in a precinct that includes at least 200 voters. The end tally would then be 40 voters voted, 160 voters disenfranchised.
Political players who do not understand the system will fear it, distrust it, and reject it’s results if unfavorable. That’s pretty self-evident, isn’t it? The same goes with the media and the NGOs. Net result: widespread rejection of the system leading to the further undermining of the electoral process.
Still think the voter ed requirement might not be mandatory?
If they can do it, why can’t we?
According to some people, these requirements aren’t all that mandatory considering that the system can be potentially very easy to learn, as proven by the fact that people in America and other places can do it. I call that the Cranberry argument. Remember the Cranberries? They sang songs like Linger and Zombie. Well, their first album was everybody else is doing it so why can’t we? And at it’s core, this argument is really just an appeal to public emotion – national pride and all that. Nothing wrong with national pride, but can the fate of an election really be made to rest on an emotional response (unfortunately, I have been accused of having a low opinion of Filipinos for simply rejecting this fallacy; for insisting that tech-savviness is not uniform across the country, much less between America and the Philippines. We have our brilliant sons and daughters who can excel in the first world, but are we all so brilliant? Even America has its share of unsophisticates and morons)?
Well, it shouldn’t. There should be more cogent reasons to justify rushing into this 2.6 billion peso project than patriotism. And so far, no such reasons have been forthcoming. Instead, the proponents of automation in 2007 keep on repeating the same old mantras:
If they can do it, why can’t we. (because they’ve been doing it longer than we have? because they’re so technologically advanced over there that having only a dial-up connection to the internet is considered de-humanizing?)
We must automate now because we are being outstripped by other countries. (like America? Venezuela? Brazil? Riiiiiiiiight. They send people into space, fill their swimming pools with oil, and lend their name to a personal hygiene procedure that has become a cultural phenomenon, and we’re worried that they’re outstripping us with their voting tech. Nice.)
We must never believe people who say that something is impossible to do. (try jumping off a roof, buddy. Who knows. You might actually do the impossible and fly – in the interest of fairness, and for those keeping count, this is called a strawman fallacy. Funny, tho.)
Playing the blame game
And finally, one of the main reasons the COMELEC is very hesitant to rush into automation is because the consequences of failure far outweigh whatever benefits may be derived from automating.
Proponents of automation in 2007 say that the COMELEC should not be afraid of failure, and that if the COMELEC is doing the right thing, it won’t allow failure as an option, and that if failure comes despite sunny optimism, the COMELEC leadership should just resign for having botched the job.
Well, the COMELEC does not dread the possibility of failure as much as it dreads the effects of failure; and
While saying things like ‘failure is not an option’ may be good for rallying the troops, remember only that King Canute once tried to boost his ego by telling the tide not to rise only to end up looking the fool; and finally,
Seriously, what would resignation do when the elections have already failed? Will resignation erase the shambles brought about by undue haste? Will people accept responsibility and not just tar and feather the COMELEC for failing in something that, despite COMELEC protest, they insisted should be done?