MANILA, NOVEMBER 18,  2003   (STAR) FROM THE STANDS By Domini M. Torrevillas - Ask Commission on Elections Chair Ben Abalos questions, and he’ll tell you no lies. At least about the use of electronic ballot counting machines, of which he is 100 percent certain will prevent cheating in the May elections. He is 100 percent sure the machines to be used will be 100 percent accurate and will brook no nonsense. Really?

That may make me sound skeptical, as most every media person attending the Bulong-Pulungan sa Westin Philippine Plaza last week sounded. Cheating from the time the ballots are counted, then canvassed and transmitted to Comelec has become a culture of lies and deception. Somewhere along the way, the ballot boxes brought from precincts to the municipal or city centers are switched by skillful hands, and people wonder why the votes are different from those read at the voting centers, or why there are more votes than registration list voters, why canvassing results have discrepancies, or why their votes do not seem to be reflected in the counting. Tsk. Tsk.

After nearly a decade of fighting for the employment of the electronic counting machines by his predecessors – a move violently opposed by some congressmen (why they should oppose this, you and I can only guess) – Abalos is now reaping the fruits of their labor, and tasked with seeing that they will work. Asked if elections will be held in May at all, he replied candidly, "Yes. Don’t get us out of our business."

Some 1,191 machines along with 76 "standbys" (costing altogether P40-billion) will be used. Doubting Thomases may be assured of their being in perfect working order, as the Department of Science and Technology will be testing them. Abalos said DOST has tested 1,000 units which passed the test. The rest will be ready months before the polls open; during the testing and waiting period, DOST is in charge of storing them in highly secure places where no genius can possibly change the machines‚ programs. ("Ah, there, some manipulations may be made at the DOST," said a skeptical newspaperwoman.) The sealed machines will be tested three days before elections at the voting centers, in the presence of party representatives. This is the reason some congressmen and local officials don’t like this system at all.

Abalos explained why fraud will be avoided. The names of candidates will be printed on the computer sheets (which cost P15 each) and voters put a check the boxes across the candidates‚ names. Their ballots are slipped into counting machines, the machines counting 40 ballots per minute, and the results are electronically transmitted by satellite to the Comelec central office in Manila. No tampering is possible because the diskettes are "encrypted" in the Egyptian language. We can only hope that the candidates won’t hire an Egyptian expert to do some hocus-pocus. My skepticism surely shows, no?

The STAR carried the story the other day, of lawyer Alfredo Lazaro Jr., spokesman for the winning bidder Mega Pacific Consortium, explaining the features of the automated machines. He said the ACMS have optical mark image recognition (OMIR) technoogy and Microsoft windows 200-based computer built into one stand-alone system.

Lazaro said, "a stand-alone machine has no mouse, keyboard and network connections that it cannot accept input of data from external device." He also said that the machine can also withstand power outage with its uninterruptible power supply and can continue running temporarily for 10 minutes, enough to finish processing of a precinct’s election results.

Let’s watch out for developments. Let’s see how the cheats are going to raise hell about the system.

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Reported by: Sol Jose Vanzi

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