It is remarkable how quickly some quarters move to discredit the work being done on automation. Less than a week after the release of the bid documents for the Automation of the ARMM elections in August, some “local IT companies” have gone straight to their favorite columnists – instead of properly bringing up the issue directly with the COMELEC right away or at the scheduled pre-bid conference – raising the spectre of irregularities simply because there is a provision requiring that the automated election system being peddled should have a track record. According to these companies, this effectively shuts out potential local participants.
The problem with this approach is that it gives the pundits a one-sided appreciation of the issue, which is then published or broadcast in the guise of giving the COMELEC the opportunity to respond. Well, why not give the COMELEC the opportunity to respond before slamming the project? (Isn’t that how journalistic objectivity used to be practiced?) If the official explanation remains unsatisfactory then publish the complaint. That way, there is at least the semblance of fairness. Otherwise, airing one-sided complaints only give rise to unwarranted suspicions about the project.
Fortunately, the Advisory Council’s (and PPCRV’s) Amb. Henrietta de Villa was on talk radio this morning confirming that the provision (A-13 in the bid documents) was supported by the Advisory Council as an important safeguard.
Now for my own take on the specific issue of whether the track record provision should be used.
The complaint basically points out that local IT companies are effectively prevented from participating in the project. Integral to this complaint – and I believe the only substantial claim that can be derived anyway – is the issue of whether Filipino tech should be promoted.
Well, of course it should. But for the elections? Local IT companies trumpet their “innovations and inventions” which are supposedly suited for the “peculiar needs of Philippine elections.” The first question that comes to mind is: how sure are we that those innovations and inventions will actually work as advertised? Remember Namfrel’s much bally-hooed SMS-based reporting system? That was touted as a home-grown innovation as well and it crashed and burned nevertheless.
The point simply is this: do we want Philippine elections to be the guinea pig for these untested systems? While it is true that Filipino ideas and innovations should be supported, I doubt that we should do so at the risk of the electoral exercise. The COMELEC would be amiss in its mandate if it were to allow the use of technology that it knows is untested and carries with it a higher probability of failure.
It is true that Filipino developers must be helped; but not at the expense of elections.
About the Philippines being a unique electoral environment: true enough. Does this mean, however, that Filipinos have a monopoly of knowledge on how to deal with that unique environment? Technology is not about nationality.
Examples have been bruited about to bolster the complaints of these local IT companies:
Example 1: The ARMM elections in 1998 used machines that did have a track record. They did not work.
False. The machines worked. The problem was with the ballot paper which was trimmed to the wrong size by an employee who had no training, much less authority, to do so. The machines themselves counted correctly.
Example 2: The ACMs for the 2004 elections. The argument goes if the South Koreans had imposed a “track record” requirement on their developers, they would never have built their own ACM.
Example 3: The Indian Electronic Voting Machine (EVM). Same argument; if the Indians had the same prohibition … so on and so forth.
Not quite the same thing. In South Korea and India – especially in India – they have a multitude of small elections nearly every year. We have one BIG election every three years. The stakes are much higher in this country because one failed election affects major elective offices like Senator and Member of the House of Representatives. In 2010, the stakes are even higher: President and Vice-President. Will the nationality of the technology used be any comfort when we fail to elect a President because we used an untested system?
In places like India, these machines were first rolled out in small elections, affecting small constituencies. This allowed them to field test the equipment with very limited adverse effects in case of failure.
So, does the track record guarantee success?
Of course not. What the track-record requirement does is it lowers the probability of failure.
When you get a system that has been used in other elections, what you get is a system that necessarily includes experience with unforeseen or unforeseeable problems encountered in actual operation. When you get a virgin system, on the other hand, all you have are theoretical scenarios which do not necessarily cover 100% of all the things that might go wrong. If you have an untested system in place and an unforeseen problem crops up, then the support team for the system will not have a well-defined procedure for dealing with problem and they will likely be improvising as they go along. Again, you want to entrust the success of major elections to a bunch of people who, in essence, are just winging it? They may be geniuses – which they probably are in all fairness – but the stakes are simply too high.
Would you leave a nuclear power plant in the hands of a child prodigy?
In any case, the COMELEC reassures the public that this provision will be discussed fully during the pre-bid conference scheduled for the 26th of February (that’s tuesday next week). Everyone who thinks the track-record idea is wrong can go there and tell the COMELEC so. Of course, since this provision was already extensively discussed before it was even included in the bid docs, people should not expect the COMELEC to simply fold and take the provision out. Expect to be argued against. After all, it is through argument that we can ensure that the ensuing decision has the highest probability of being the right one.