Election officers asked to explain transmission glitches

Aries C. Rufo

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The Comelec en banc gave this order last week while publicly blaming telcos for the failure of PCOS machines to transmit results to Manila

MANILA, Philippines – While publicly blaming telecommunication companies last week for glitches in the transmission of election results from about a fourth of areas across the country, the poll body was internally taking its local election officers (EOs) to task.

In an en banc meeting, the Commission on Election (Comelec) resolved to order EOs to explain the 23% transmission failure rate covering 18,000 precinct count optical scan (PCOS) machines. A vote-counting machine is stationed at each clustered precinct, where up to 1,000 voters were assigned. 

A commissioner, who asked not to be identified for lack of permission to speak on behalf of the poll body, said the en banc’s instruction had been given to regional election directors and provincial EOs.

They have been asked “to explain the reason for transmission failure,” not just in areas where the precinct-level results were not sent to the Transparency Server, but also in areas where the transmissions were slow or delayed.

“We’ve ordered the EOs to make a report based on the minutes of voting in the municipal and precinct level,” the poll commissioner said.

The poll commissioner said initial reports from the field showed many Board of Election Inspectors (BEIs) manning the precincts simply gave up when the PCOS failed to transmit results after several tries.

The poll official admitted that the gap in the transmission of results was a concern. “It was not as transparent as we hoped it would be.”

The transmission rate this year was even slower and lower than in 2010, the first time the elections were automated nationwide.

The case of Lanao del Sur

At around 3:05 pm on May 16 – 3 days after the elections – 17 PCOS machines from Lanao del Sur sent election data to the poll body’s Transparency Server in Manila.

It was the second biggest batch of precinct-level results that came from the province since the polls officially closed in the evening of May 13. Nothing followed after that from the close to 1,000 vote-counting machines that remained in this province in the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (ARMM).

Lanao del Sur had 1,146 PCOS machines.

But in that span of 3 days, the Transparency Server only got 182 PCOS reports from Lanao del Sur – a measly 16% transmission rate. This was the lowest transmission rate among the 80 provinces across the country.

The situation  in Lanao del Sur defies immediate explanation, if one considers that two municipalities –  Balindong and Kapatagan – were able to send 100% PCOS results. Three more towns – Wao, Malabang, and Balagagan – were able to send 96%, 87%, and 84% PCOS results, respectively.

Out of the 39 municipalities comprising Lanao del Sur,  27 failed to send any election results to the Transparency Server. The provincial capital, Marawi City, had only 12 PCOS machines sending results or a transmission rate of only 11%.

Other provinces in the ARMM fared better but recorded less than 50% transmission rate.  Maguindanao had 41% transmission rate, Sulu registered  42%, and Basilan posted 45%.

The only exception in ARMM is Tawi-Tawi, which had 73% transmission rate.

Rappler called ARMM Regional Election Director (RED) Rey Sumalipao on his Comelec-issued cell number but the one who answered the phone denied he was the poll official. We also called the ARMM RED office, but we were told that he was not around. The Comelec staff also said nobody in the ARMM RED office could attend to our inquiries.

A step backward

To be sure,  it was not only the ARMM provinces that had low transmission rate. Based on data from the Comelec-Rappler Mirror Server, Ifugao province had the second lowest transmission among the provinces, with a 26% transmission rate. Mountain Province and Sultan Kudarat registered 40% while Batanes registered a 42% transmission rate.

The table below shows which provinces had the highest and lowest transmission rates as of May 20, 2013.

Highest transmission rates   Lowest transmission rates
Sarangani 97%  Lanao del Sur 16%  
Dinagat Islands 97% Ifugao 26%    
Siquijor 97% Sultan Kudarat 40%
Surigao del Sur 95%   Mountain Province 40%
Cebu 94% Maguindanao 41% 
Bataan 93%     Sulu 42%
Metropolitan Manila 91% Batanes 42%
Camarines Norte 89% Zamboanga del Norte 43%
Negros Occidental 88%   Basilan 45%
Batangas 87%  Lanao del Norte 58%

It has not been this way 3 years ago when the country had its first nationwide automated polls.

In Lanao del Sur,  results from the precincts sent by the PCOS machines were already hitting more than 77%, while Maguindanao province had 98% transmission rate, in the first 30 hours after the polls closed in the May 10, 2010 elections.

Basilan, for its part, posted 89% transmission rate while Sulu had 95%. Tawi-Tawi also fared better in 2010, with 96%% transmission rate by May 11, 2010.

Ifugao province hit 98% transmission rate on the second day while Mountain Province had 97%. Sultan Kudarat registered 98%. Batanes had 100% transmission on the second day.

Nationwide, the transmission rate was already more than 80% just a couple of hours after the polls closed in 2010. By the time the Comelec was ready to proclaim the winning senatorial candidates then,  the transmission rate was at 90%.

But this year,  the Transparency Server could only cough up 69% of precinct results on the second day, before stalling at 76% on the third day.  By this time election watchdogs Parish Pastoral Council for Responsible Voting (PPCRV) and the National Citizens’ Movement for Free Elections joined forces in asking Comelec to explain the high gap of transmission failure.

Suspicions that manipulation of votes was ongoing at the precinct level arose. It did not help that the Comelec seemingly rushed the proclamation of the first 6 winning senators based only on 24% of certificates of votes (COCs) canvassed.

The Comelec ordered local canvassers to fax their provincial COCs, in an effort to determine whether the delayed results could still affect the places of the first 6 winning senators.

Blaming the telcos

An official of the Philippine Long Distance Telephone Co., who spoke to Rappler two days after the elections, expressed concern that Comelec might blame the telecommunication providers for the transmission glitches.

It was a self-fulfilling prophecy.

More than a week after the elections, Comelec chairman  Sixto Brillantes Jr blamed weak signals for the transmission problems that affected a total of 18,000 PCOS. He said he purposely did not disclose this in public “because that will create problems.” He also pointed out that the coverage of telecommunications providers is only at 63% nationwide.

Expectedly, mobile networks Smart, Sun Cellular, and Globe refuted Brillantes’ claim. In a statement, PLDT, which operates Smart and Sun Cellular, pointed out that in 2010, “nearly 80 percent of the election results were successfully transmitted to the central data servers of the Comelec and the PPCRV 12 hours after the polling precincts were closed. From a purely telecoms standpoint, there is no reason why a similar, if not better, result should have been achieved in 2013.”

Globe for its part said it had not received any transmission related concern from Smartmatic, the supplier of the PCOS machine.

The PLDT official said that prior to the elections, Comelec purchased as many as 30,000 Smart and Sun SIM cards to be used for the transmission of results. The same number of SIM cards were expected to have been acquired from Globe.

By extrapolation, a total of 60,000 SIM cards were acquired by Comelec, which covered 60,000 PCOS. This represented 77% of the total number of clustered precincts.

The PLDT official surmised that those areas which failed to transmit precinct results are those covered by the Broadband Global Area Network (BGAN) satellites, which serviced remote areas.

Still, this does not explain why some municipalities in ARMM, particularly in Lanao del Sur, were able to send 100% PCOS results. – with a report from Reynaldo Santos Jr/Rappler.com

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