Thursday, January 29, 2015

Election automation in the Philippines: a snapshot

taesmileland / freedigitalphotos
During the last few months, the Philippine Commission on Elections (Comelec) has been selecting election technology and service providers for the 2016 general elections. As is customary in this country, the process has sparked all kinds of controversies.

One of the latest controversial episodes occurred on Tuesday's hearing of the House Committee on Suffrage and Electoral Reforms. Under intense questioning from Caloocan Representative Edgar Erice, Carlos Suarez, vice president of Indra Sistemas – a bidding company–, was forced to admit that the Government of Spain, through Sociedad Estatal de Participaciones Industriales (SEPI), is the single largest shareholder of the company.

Erice pressed Indra on the ownership issue saying that he is concerned that a foreign state might interfere with the country's elections. "I understand that it's normal for states to have a majority stake in companies. But it's a different matter if we're talking about elections" he said. Erice was seconded by Rep. Terry Ridon, who said that the matter is "cause for concern", and added:"We don’t want foreign state entities to be involved in our elections". If authorities reach a consensus over the inconvenience of risking a foreign government intervene in national elections, the Philippines would be left with only one choice to choose from the British company Smartmatic.

Besides the Spanish company, controversy is also spilling over to Comelec. For example, two poll watch coalitions accused Comelec of signing a “midnight deal” with Smartmatic for the diagnostic tests of the same 80,000 PCOS machines Smartmatic sold to the country in 2012. The fact that no contract has actually been signed to this day between Comelec and Smartmatic for such services, prompted authorities to slam those poll watchdog groups.

It is a shame that the institution responsible for the previous two successful automated elections has become the target of such aggressive campaign. Public administration should be thoroughly scrutinized, but unfounded accusations hurt the democratic ecosystem as a whole. Comelec has made mistakes in the past, just like any other public institution in the world, but it should also be credited for increasing the speed with which results are delivered and reducing post-electoral violence since automation. 

The latest two automated elections (2010-2013) have also been constantly hammered with criticism by certain watchdogs. However, these groups have not escaped controversy. Local Rep. Fredenil Castro, who chairs the House Committee on Suffrage and Electoral Reforms, scolded certain "interested" groups and "self-styled" experts for creating unwarranted "noise" about the ongoing bid even as he appealed to such groups not to cast aspersion upon Comelec's integrity and credibility.  "We should not allow this thing to happen because elections are of critical importance to our democracy.”

Addressing Evita Jimenez of AES Watch, which had been critical of the automated election system, Castro appealed for the group to refrain from attacking the Comelec without substantiation. "Unless they can substantiate their accusations, I urge these groups to exercise restraint in coming out with statements that put the Comelec in a bad light" Castro said, and concluded: "The Comelec safeguards our elections. If these groups attack the integrity of the Comelec, then it weakens out democracy because it places the legitimacy of the government under a cloud of suspicion."

Controversy is still in the air, and is likely to grow as the bidding processes gets into more decisive stages. We’ll keep you posted with another snapshot in due time.