Fixing the PCOS problem

With the legality of buying the PCOS machines settled, all that's left to prove is that they won't encounter the same 2010 poll problems
Courtesy of Fung Yu

MANILA, Philippines – With the legality of using the old precint count optical scan (PCOS) machines for the 2013 elections now settled, all that’s left to prove is that the machines will not encounter the same problems in the 2010 polls.

The Supreme Court lifted on Wednesday, June 13, the temporary restraining order it issued in April against the machine purchase after several groups questioned it. The Comelec exercised on March 30 its option to purchase some 82,000 PCOS machines from Smartmatic Corp and its local partner Total Information Management Corp.

With the legality issue already laid to rest, the task now for Comelec and Smartmatic is to address the technical issues that arose during the 2010 elections, and to redeem the poll body’s name after installing an automated election system that had multiple glitches.

Various politicians, IT experts, civil society groups, and even some employees of the Comelec raised, among other issues, technical concerns on the 2010 PCOS machines, which are worth noting now, since these will be the same machines to be used in the 2013 polls.

Here are some of their observations:

1. The Comelec has disabled some security features of the machines, which include:

  • Ultraviolet (UV) ink detector. The PCOS machines are designed to recognize the authenticity of ballots through the security marks printed on them. The machines, however, cannot read the marks because of the lessened density of the UV ink. This was a result of the rush to print and meet printing deadlines. The Comelec decided to just disable the UV ink detecting function of the machine, and instead purchased some 76,000 handheld UV readers (worth P30 million) that were not even used during the elections.
  • Digital signature. The PCOS machine is programmed to ask the Board of Election Inspectors (BEI) to key in their digital signatures before it transmits election results (ERs). The BEI digital signatures were supposed to authenticate the ERs. The Comelec argued that the machine’s own digital signature serves equally as the digital signature of the BEI, hence there’s no need for the latter. But investigations found that the PCOS machines have no internal digital signatures. Without the digital signatures, complaints claim, it was impossible to pinpoint and verify the source of transmitted results.
  • Voter vote verification. The PCOS machine was supposed to print out a ‘receipt’ for each voter, which will reveal the votes casted by an individual. The Comelec disabled the feature, claiming that it could be used for vote-buying. On Election Day, voters only saw a ‘congratulations’ message on the machine screen, without seeing a copy of their votes.

2. Physical features that are questioned by various parties include:

  • Compact flash (CF) card. The configuration of the CF cards, which give instructions to the PCOS machines on how to read ballots, was questioned. Comelec and Smartmatic put the blame on faulty CF card programming for the machines giving out wrong results during the PCOS test done a week before the polls. Other parties alleged that some CF cards were pre-loaded, despite earlier claims by Smartmatic that the machines won’t accept rigged cards.
  • Console port. Smartmatic earlier explained that a console port at the back of the machine could only be used as an output which in turn, could be used only for monitoring the machine’s status. But IT experts who examined the machine after the 2010 elections found that the port could also be used as an input which, if connected to other gadgets, would enable an intruder to easily control the machine.

3. There were other inconsistencies observed during the voting period and canvassing of votes, among them:

  • There were long queues of voters waiting to vote for more than 3 hours because they had to locate their precincts; this allegedly resulted in 3 to 5 million disenfranchised voters.
  • An erroneous count of 253 million registered voters was found in the server of the House of Representatives.
  • The system failed to read 3 to 4 million “null” votes recorded nationwide. Former vice-presidential aspirant Manuel Roxas III noted that as much as 2.6 million votes for the vice-presidency alone were considered by the PCOS machines as “null votes.”
  • The printed ERs contained incorrect date-time stamps.
  • Instead of the actual election results, many ERs showed results of the Final Testing and Sealing of the PCOS machines (which was conducted a week before the election day).

In a Senate hearing on March 22, Comelec defended its decision to purchase the old PCOS machines, claiming that Smartmatic was already working on the technical problems. Comelec chair Sixto Brillantes said that they could have cancelled the purchase if the technical glitches are not fixed. “They (Smartmatic) even spoke of enhancements to the system,” he said.

Comelec spokesperson James Jimenez explained in a phone interview the following adjustments arranged so far on the machines:

  • On null votes: Jimenez explained that during the 2010 polls, the audit logs of the PCOS machines counted overvotes and no votes, among others, as null votes. He said that Smartmatic will reconfigure the machines so that, among others, they can distinguish between overvotes and no votes.
  • On erroneous date-time stamps: Jimenez explained that Smartmatic will ensure that the date-time stamp set in the machine will appear on the PCOS machine screen before the ERs are printed. This, he said, will ensure that only the votes counted on Election Day are reflected on the ERs.
  • On the UV ink detector and digital signatures: Jimenez said that these features were only disabled and may be enabled any time. This will just require a resolution by the Comelec en banc.

In an election forum organized in May by the Development Academy of the Philippines and groups Libertas and demokraXXia, the Comelec requested for the following adjustments:

  • Lowering the shading threshold from 50% to 25% to avoid rejection of votes by the machine
  • Resetting memory cards to zero
  • Integration of voter biometrics stored in the Comelec database with PCOS machines. This will eliminate ghost/multiple votes. –
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