Citizens troop to final PCOS tests

Paterno R. Esmaquel II

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For the last time, the Comelec tests ballot-counting machines in most of the Philippines

TESTING PCOS. In a final dry run, election inspectors check if the PCOS works. Photo by Paterno Esmaquel II

MANILA, Philippines – Watchdogs, watchers from political parties, and other concerned citizens troop to polling precincts on Monday, May 6, as the Commission on Elections (Comelec) performs a final test on ballot-counting machines in most of the Philippines.

Comelec chair Sixto Brillantes Jr, who supervised an earlier test in Pasay City, said Monday’s final testing and sealing (FTS) will cover 60% of polling precincts. The FTS is the final dry run for precinct count optical scan (PCOS) machines. 

“It’s one week before election day, and we want to make sure the machine is functioning well,” said Eric Jude Alvia, secretary-general of the National Citizens’ Movement for Free Elections (Namfrel), in a phone interview with Rappler.

Namfrel, an official Comelec citizens’ arm, is deploying up to 5,000 members to monitor the FTS.

Kontra Daya, a watchdog that has criticized the current automated election system (AES), urged the public to closely watch the FTS as well. “There is sufficient basis to believe, based on mock polls, PCOS demonstrations, and even the overseas absentee voting in Hong Kong, that there remains major problems with the AES,” Kontra Daya said. 

FINAL TEST. The Comelec opens the final PCOS testing to the public. File photo by John Javellana

Minor glitches 

Both Namfrel and Kontra Daya recalled sporadic glitches during the FTS held last May 2.

Alvia said the FTS then encountered no major problems, but cited problems such as the following:

  • Delay in initializing, or turning on, the PCOS machine

  • Failure to read a ballot due to a hardware problem

The Namfrel official refused to call the problems minor, however, and instead described these as a “concern.” He said Namfrel made similar observations during the mock elections last February 2. “Kung gano’n ang trend, medyo kinakabahan na tayo,” Alvia said. (If that’s the trend, then we’re feeling nervous.)

Kontra Daya, for its part, recorded the following problem on its website: “In Jose Rizal Elementary School, PCOS machine had to be rebooted several times. Initialization took too much time.”

Brillantes said the Comelec found no large-scale glitches, but admitted “there will always be problems.”

'NOT PERFECT.' Comelec chair Sixto Brillantes Jr says he expects a few glitches during the FTS. Photo by Paterno Esmaquel II

Hindi naman puwedeng ma-perfect ang FTS. ‘Pagka na-perfect ‘yan, kakabahan na ako. ‘Pag na-perfect ‘yan, ibig sabihin naluto ‘yan,” Brillantes said in an interview. (The FTS can never be perfect. If that is perfected, then I will feel nervous. If that is perfected, it means it was rigged.)

During the FTS in Pasay City last week, Brillantes called the process a “confidence-building” measure. (Watch Rappler’s video report below.)

Test ballots

The FTS checks the completeness, security, and accuracy of PCOS machines.

SAMPLE BALLOTS. Ten voters fill out ballots that they will use to test the PCOS. Photo by Paterno Esmaquel II

Its most important part is the casting of test ballots. The board of election inspectors (BEI) randomly chooses 10 voters to do this.

Then, once the voters have inserted their ballots in the PCOS, the BEI should retrieve the test ballots from the ballot box, and manually count the votes. The manual tally should match the PCOS count.

MANUAL TALLY. Election inspectors audit the PCOS count. Photo by Paterno Esmaquel II

Comelec Resolution No. 9640, which tackles the general instructions for the FTS, states: “If the results of both ERs are not the same, the BEI shall review/re-appreciate the ballots to determine the cause of the discrepancy. If after re-appreciation, there is still discrepancy, the BEI shall calll on the assigned technical support personnel.”

The BEI should also observe the procedures below, among others:

  • Seal the ballot box with packing tape and show the public that the PCOS box is sealed

  • Check all the contents of the PCOS box

  • Retrieve the personal identification number or PIN of each BEI member

  • Set the correct date and time

The BEI should also seal the slots for the main and back-up memory cards. Once they finish the process, they should seal the entire PCOS box.

CHECKED, SEALED. Election inspectors will open the PCOS box only on election day. Photo by Paterno Esmaquel II

From then on, the PCOS may only be opened on May 13, before voting begins and in the presence of watchers, if any.

In 2010, the FTS revealed configuration errors in around 76,000 compact flash (CF) cards, triggering no-election scenarios then. Manufacturer Smartmatic, however, replaced the defective CF cards in less than a week.

Brillantes said such a massive problem is unlikely to happen again. “If we were able to replace all the 76,000 in 2010 in less than a week, we should be able to solve isolated problems of CF cards,” he said. 

This year’s FTS happens amid two new cases over the PCOS – one before the Philippine Supreme Court, another before the United Nations – and related protests by various groups. The Comelec, however, has made assurances that the PCOS will function well – a claim to be tested in the FTS and, eventually, on May 13. –

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Paterno R. Esmaquel II

Paterno R. Esmaquel II is a senior multimedia reporter covering religion for Rappler. He also teaches journalism at the University of Santo Tomas. For story ideas or feedback, email