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High-tech polls: No more ‘Hello Garci’

By Edwin Fernandez, Kristine L. Alave
Philippine Daily Inquirer
First Posted 01:46:00 08/11/2008

Filed Under: Elections, Technology (general), Politics

COTABATO CITY?For 43-year-old Anso Mamalimping, cheating during election is a culture that may take centuries to eradicate.

But Mamalimping believes Monday?s balloting can be the ?first election with, at least, limited fraud? in the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (ARMM), known as the country?s ?cheating capital during elections.?

Bai Indang Ali of Sultan Kudarat, Maguindanao, believes that the automated vote will ?somehow reduce electoral fraud that has tainted the region for years.?

?Remember the ?Hello Garci? controversy? It was born in Lanao del Sur,? she says of allegations President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo called then Election Commissioner Virgilio Garcillano to rig the 2004 elections, a charge she vehemently denies.

?I remember national candidates describing ARMM as the provider of swing votes,? referring to dagdag-bawas?ballot-padding and -shaving operations.

?I believe the technology will reduce some of these irregularities and there is ray of hope ahead of us,? she says.

?Cheating and fraud, in whatever form, are hard to eradicate,? Mamalimping says.

?Philippine politics is like that, cheating starts from campaign period up to counting and canvassing, even during proclamation when the battles shifted from the ballots to the courts,? he says.

In the ARMM elections in the past, some ?losers? were proclaimed victors and some ?winners? were sidelined simply because they lost court battles.

Spending more than P500 million, the Commission on Elections is hoping irregularities can be neutralized in this year?s ARMM balloting, a pilot program for the 2010 national polling.

Reduced human intervention

?Although it may not resolve the entire problem of election fraud, the automated elections in the ARMM will surely address the serious concerns of ?dagdag-bawas?,? says James Jimenez, Comelec spokesperson. ?At least human intervention is reduced, especially during counting.?

A total of 1,516,775 registered voters are expected to troop to 1,903 polling centers for the Aug. 11 balloting for a regional governor, vice governor and 24 members of the regional legislative assembly.

Incumbent Gov. Datu Zaldy Ampatuan of the ruling Lakas-Christian Muslim Democrats party is seeking reelection, the first governor to do so since the ARMM was created in 1990.

Ampatuan, 41, is being challenged by Guimid Panalangin Matalam of Pwersa ng Masang Pilipino and Jupakar Pindah-Asia Arabani, Ismain Berto Ibrahim, Alvarez Silal Isnaji, Ahmad Darping Nooh and Ali Jumadil Omar?all running as independents.

Isnaji is detained in connection with the recent kidnapping of TV journalist Ces Drilon, two of her cameramen and peace advocate Octavio Dinampo in Jolo, Sulu.

Five candidates have joined the vice gubernatorial race while 78 aspire to become regional lawmakers.

Enough peacekeepers

Chief Supt. Joel Goltiao of the Philippine National Police sees a peaceful election, saying there?s ?enough peacekeepers and because it is automated.? At least 12,590 policemen and soldiers have been deployed in the region?s six provinces and two cities.

The Comelec says about 3,300 electronic voting machines will be used in Maguindanao, which will employ the direct recording electronic (DRE) system, or ?touch screen electronic voting.? Under the system, voters will simply touch the pictures of candidates they wish to elect.

Around 160 automated counting machines, which will utilize the optical mark reader (OMR) technology, have been distributed in five provinces of Basilan, Sulu, Tawi-Tawi, Shariff Kabunsuan and Lanao del Sur.

Vince Dizon of Smartmatic-Sahi Technology says that the voting machines are designed to make voting easier, especially for disabled and illiterate voters.

?It is faster and easier to use the automated voting machines than it is to write the individual names of candidates on the ballots,? he says.

No writing of names

Leo Querubin, Avante?s project manager, says that ease of voting is a major feature of ballots for OMR machines.

?Unlike in the previous elections, where the voter would have to write the names of their chosen candidates, this time, voters have to simply shade the circles beside the candidates? name,? Querubin says.

?We have nine counting machines in five precincts. And we can count 100 ballots in a minute. It will depend on how fast the ballots will be transported to the counting machine,? he says.

Counting will be over and election results known within 36 hours.

Dizon says the DRE machines will ?minimize human intervention in the counting and canvassing process,? and in the case of Maguindanao?where the DRE equipment will be used?there will be no human intervention in the counting and canvassing.

?The OMR security features include a 24-digit randomly generated bar code which identifies the ballot as being from a specific precinct,? Querubin says.

The OMR is programmed to count only ballots from designated precincts. The laptop?s keyboard is also locked, so no information can be inputted while the machine is in operation.

Other dirty tricks likely

Although automation may reduce human intervention in the counting of votes, the technology does not prevent vote-buying, intimidation, disenfranchisement, and other dirty tricks.

C-CARE, the Parish Pastoral Council for Responsible Voting (PPCRV) and various Muslim religious leaders and civil society organizations have been conducting an education campaign on the pilot project for future Philippine polling.

The PPCRV and its 16 partners in the Bangsamoro region will deploy 3,000 watchers in voting and counting centers and another 300 roaming volunteers.

No way to beat techies

Henrietta de Villa, chair of the PPCRV and the National Movement for Free Elections, says political operators haven?t yet ?found a way to beat the technology.?

?You can?t get rid of vote buying, the intimidation. You can?t prevent them from approaching voters,? De Villa said.

She also says ballots cast cannot be traced by political operators who threaten voters to vote for a certain candidate. ?There?s no way of tracing them, unlike in the past,? she says.

?In the final analysis, the integrity of the elections depends on the board of election inspectors, the voters, and the politicians,? De Villa says, ?but they can?t easily change the results on the election returns. I would say that the space for cheating has narrowed.?

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