A thimbleful of time

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.

Learning curve

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?


9 Responses

  1. Mr. Jimenez, like you I am all for election automation. You make a very good case for scrapping the pilot for 2007, most of your arguments, if not all, are valid. I think I am just more passionate than you on this one, that I actually believe that it still can be done, albeit, on a smaller scale. I believe that if we don’t do it on a pilot level in 2007, then the chances of full automation in 2010 is remote. We now have the new law but do we have the will is the question. I know that there are procedural things that have to be followed and together with time left to elections, makes it all too impossible. But let me make my perhaps naive case that it can be done if the will is there.
    Last October the Banzon commission sent out a Request For Information to potential vendors and I believe 13 vendors of different flavors responded. So the Comelec and the Advisory Council knows what is out there. As to the TOR and specs, most of it is spelled out in the new law under minimum systems requirements, this should not take long to complete. Comelec can do a limited source bidding as provided by the Government Procurement Act to pre qualified bidders. To pre qualify vendors, all Comelec has to do first is to limit the vendors to those that have proven and tested technologies used in actual elections and are certified by international elections organizations. Secondly, ask these potential vendors if they can do it and how they can do with 3 months left. Thirdly, are they willing to lease their system for a one time engagement for the pilot only. If any vendors passed all these qualifications, then we might have something here that is doable and cost effective. As to educating the voting public about the system, I am very optimistic about its ease. Filipinos are long been exposed to using ATMs and SMS, and most voting systems available are of the push button variety. Let us not lose focus on the meaning of pilot test – to test if a system is viable on a limited scale before it goes full scale. This is the crux of my case driven by the will to do it now on a limited scale to successfully go full scale in 2010, make adjustments or corrections along the way based on the pilot. We really have to start viewing this automation project as a major ICT infrastructure project that takes time to evolve and perfect, unfortunately the testbed which is an actual elections is every three years. So if we don’t do it for 2007, then we forgo of that limited opportunity to get it out there and see, test, etc.

  2. nueralfive – first off, I called you neuralfive before, my bad.

    As to your points, I admire your seeming grasp of the situation. As you said, you are very passionate about all this. So I will try to address all your concerns.

    So the Comelec and the Advisory Council knows what is out there.

    Yes, we do. But knowing what is available is a far cry from deciding what to use. The choice between an OMR-based or a DRE-based solution is one that is not to be made lightly and simply because one wants to ‘get on with it.’ Factors like transportability, usability, and reliability have to be weighed carefully. If this were a private enterprise, using private funds, then we could probably be as cavalier in our approach to this as many people want. But these are public funds at stake. We must adhere to higher standards of prudence and deliberation.

    As to the TOR and specs, most of it is spelled out in the new law under minimum systems requirements, this should not take long to complete.

    Unfortunately, not. This is a common misperception of lawmakers. The minimum specs speak only of what the machine ought to be able to do, not how it should do it in the real world. In the real world, we have to talk about meeting accuracy ratings, we have to talk about what constitutes an audit trail, and so on. Think ofg it as planning a party. The minimum system requirements is you saying “I want punch, spaghetti, roast pig, and three different cakes.” Those are your minimum requirements. To meet those requirements, I have to think about buying fruit juices, liquor, ice, a punch bowl, cups, pasta, cheese, tomato sauce, hiring a vehicle to go pick up the roast pig, hiring someone to chop it up once it gets to the venue, ordering the cakes from some bakery (assuming I’m not baking them myself) … you get what I mean.

    Comelec can do a limited source bidding as provided by the Government Procurement Act to pre qualified bidders.

    i’m a little fuzzy on this, but what I understand is that since the machines are not unique to any one vendor, there is no justification for short-cut bidding procedures. and even if there were such measures possible, they would still take more than three months.

    ask these potential vendors if they can do it and how they can do with 3 months left.

    we did ask them, remember? when there was still almost 6 months left. and they told us that if they didn’t have a contract by January 5, 2007, they couldn’t do it anymore. It was in all the papers. If they said they couldn’t do it in 4 months, what makes us think they’ll say they can do it in three?

    If any vendors passed all these qualifications, then we might have something here that is doable and cost effective.

    that’s a mighty big if there, nueralfive. I’m happy that you at least recognize the possibility that what you’re asking for might be impossible.

    Filipinos are long been exposed to using ATMs and SMS, and most voting systems available are of the push button variety.

    you have. and all your friends have. but don’t make the mistake of thinking that you’re level of tech-savvy is the same for every single one of our registered voters. We have voters in places where they have never even seen a PC, much less know how to navigate scroll bars and back buttons. There are places in the philippines where they don’t even have electricity. And these people outnumber tech-savvy people, believe me. We can educate them, sure. But not in 3 months. In any case, even assuming that we did take this on, do you honestly think we will have the full three months for education? We will have to start education only after the machine has been completely designed and a prototype built. We can’t go on ‘general concepts.’ They tried that in Europe with a voting machine. In their education campaign, they used a machine that looked a certain way. On election day, the voters saw a different machine which operated on the same general concepts but looked and acted differently. The result was massive disenfranchisement as people simply gave up or refused to use the thing.

    Let us not lose focus on the meaning of pilot test – to test if a system is viable on a limited scale before it goes full scale

    Yes, let’s not. The limited scale testing involves 2 highly urbanized cities and 2 provinces each in LVM. That’s a huge coverage, and it includes high voting population densities. If you screw it up there, then you run the risk of affecting the outcome of the polls. People really ought to check the numbers before claiming that this will be a small exercise.

    Now, let me ask you, why do you say that the failure to automate in 2007 will lead to the failure to automate in 2010? What’s wrong with conducting pilot tests after the may polls? What’s the hurry? Why this insistent effort to stampede the COMELEC into doing something it is not ready to do?

    If we automate and fail, we lose far more in terms of credibility than if we didn’t automate at all. And who will step up to take the blame then? All the people who shouted long and hard that COMELEC had to automate? Heck no. Those people will melt back into the woodwork.

    Now some people say COMELEC shouldn’t be afraid of failure. That we should take the gamble and resign if we fail. Supposing we fail and the leadership resigns, will that solve the problem of a screwed up 2007 polls?

  3. Mr. Jimenez, I like you coz you’re an interesting, intelligent and articulate fella. I will comment on your answers on my next post as I have some pressing matters to attend at the moment. But let me make two quick points.

    Your statement that no vendors are interested if the contract is not awarded by Jan. 5, 2007 is NOT TRUE. I am aware of a vendor who responded to the RFI that detailed how many machines they can deliver if the contract is signed in Jan, Feb or March. As I’m writing this, I know there are vendors right now in the hallways of COMELEC meeting with your commissioners. So how can you say that vendors are no longer interested in participating. Let us please be responsible to statements we issue to the media so as not to mislead the public. Verify these with the Banzon commission and your bosses.

    You make a good case that with three months time left to elections it’s impossible to automate. Maybe but explain this. The Banzon commission put out the RFI in late Oct 2006 and as you said 15 vendors responded. One of those who responded was a Spanish ompany, Scytl with an internet voting solution. Based on a Request For Information (RFI) and not on Request For Proposal (RFP), someone in Comelec made a case to the Solicitor General that since Scytl was the only vendor who offered internet voting with proprietary, patented security features for the Overseas Absentee Voters there is no need to do a competitive bidding. Believe me Scytl is not the only company in the world that offers internet voting, nor are they unique with proprietary security features. To my suprise based on what I read the Solicitor General’s office concurred. Seems like Comelec is signing a contract with Scytl for OAV pilot in Singapore, all these in less than three months. I am not accusing anybody of hanky panky here, that’s not my point. My point is if your bosses will it, they can pull it off even in three months! So all your arguments about public funds at stake, adhere to higher standards of prudence and deliberation, Comelec will be blamed in case of failure, blah blah are moot. DO AS YOU PREACH!

  4. Nueralfive, thank you for taking the time to respond. It is active discussion like this that leads us all to better solutions and better relationships.

    Now, as to your points:

    As you must know, we have said that electronic transmission is still possible. So I suppose that means someone will try to sell us solutions for that. My statement, quoted by the Philippine Star, refers to vendors for an end-to-end solution.

    As for Scytl, to my knowledge, the RFI was not the first time they showed up on the COMELEC radar.

    And, rolling out an internet voting system in tiny singapore is a far cry from rolling out an end-to-end system in two provinces and two highly urbanized cities in Luzon, Visayas and Mindanao, my friend.

    Not to belabor the obvious, an internet voting system is less complicated than end-to-end automation as envisioned by the AES law. For one thing, the logistical dance necessary for the successful roll-out of the system throughout 12 places – each of which is likely to be bigger than singapore! – will not be a factor in internet voting.

    For another, the voters in Singapore are already steeped in the vagaries of internet use, and so the learning curve will be less steep.

    Arguments about public funds at stake are moot? Higher standards of prudence and deliberation are moot? If you truly mean this, then I fear to tread into your world where these considerations are considered unimportant, Nueralfive.

    In any case, thank you for all your kind words and valuable candor. I truly appreciate it.

  5. Mr. Jimenez, I really appreciate our lively discussions and thank you also for taking the time as I know you are a very busy guy these days. Forgive me if you took my kind words as something personal. Believe me, it was not directed to you.

    To further clarify, the vendor I was refering to who is still actively interested is offering an end to end solution. They are confident that they can still deliver even if the contract is signed in March because they have the experience. They were able to successfully deploy their system in a national elections that covered 14 million voters in 5 months. So for the proposed pilot and three months left, it still can be done.

    With regards to the differences in size, scope, logistics, processes, etc. between the planned OAV internet voting pilot in Singapore and proposed local pilot, you are absolutely right. Very hard, very little time but not impossible.

    To address the legitimate concern that total failure of end to end automation on the proposed pilot areas of 2 cities and 2 provinces in LVM will be disastrous to the ultimate outcome of the results, I propose what I call partial – partial pilot scheme. Retain the proposed number of pilot areas but do it on a selective precinct basis where the results of selected pilot precincts will not have a material effect on the final outcome. This can be statiscally calculated with accuracy. The goal of the pilot is to test the viability of the system without creating an adverse effect to the outcome in case of total failure. This is why I am adamant about having a pilot for 2007 to prepare for total automation in 2010 as envisioned by the new law. To pilot is to simulate as close as possible to the actual environment. Unfortunately, succeeding elections after 2007 are minor ones and would not be able to simulate with high degree of closeness.

    Finally I think you misunderstood me on my “moot” statement. I also firmly believe that when dealing with public funds, higher standards of prudence and deliberation should be observed. So I belong to your world, my friend. I was merely refering to the haste and the extra efforts to go to the Solicitor General and get its legal blessing to do a no bidding contract that would cost our taxpayers I believe P23million to do a pilot on 26,000 voters in Singapore. This is P877 or $18 per voter. Where is the higher standards of prudence and deliberations here? So I am merely highlighting the inconsistences of your words and the actions of your bosses. I wish you well, my friend.

  6. Don’t worry, nueralfive. I didn’t take your comments personally. 🙂

    And you have to agree that it is never all just a matter of pesos and cents, is it? So, the strict arithmetical approach to defining whether a thing ought to be done or not, is kinda over-simplifying things.

    Like I said before, I appreciate the time you are taking to discuss this.

  7. True, true, my friend it is never all just a matter of pesos and cents. But I think you are missing the point. Since there was no bidding on the OAV internet voting pilot, how then can we compare the pesos and cents vis a vis other vendors. The strict arithmetical approach is not over simplifying things if there is a point of reference or comparison. In fact it is a very effective tool that is commonly used in evaluating competitive bids. But in this case, there was none.

    It just strikes me funny when I read in the newspapers this morning that Comelec says that all prospective vendors should go through a competitive bidding. Yet, Comelec has agreed “in principle” (whatever that means) with Syctl on internet voting without a competitive bidding. Where is the consistency here? What is the motivation, pesos and cents, my friend?

    Anyway, you guys have an uphill battle on OAV internet voting. Is there a law or not? Let the new AC and the legal beagles decide.

    My friend, this is beyond you and I. It is people above us, the powers that be, that will make or break it. There lies the problem. Nonetheless, it is people like us who hopefully keep it straight. Cheers.

  8. Bush is forever saying that democracies do not invade other countries and start wars. Well, he did just that. He invaded Iraq, started a war, and killed people. What do you think? How does that work in a democracy again? How does being more threatening make us more likeable?Isn’t the country with
    the most weapons the biggest threat to the rest of the world? When one country is the biggest threat to the rest of the world, isn’t that likely to be the most hated country?
    If ever there was ever a time in our nation’s history that called for a change, this is it!
    The more people that the government puts in jails, the safer we are told to think we are. The real terrorists are wherever they are, but they aren’t living in a country with bars on the windows. We are.

  9. nice word..thimbleful..

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