The ills of privatized elections

IBON Features | ‘Election privatization’ is a phenomenon that is feared even in the most advanced countries as undermining an important democratic exercise such as the national elections

Also on the elections and prospects under the incoming administration: The Ills of Privatized Elections; RP under new gov’t: is there hope for our backward economy?; First 100 days: beyond corruption, real steps to reform; From a weak republic: Challenges for the next administration; Seeking change: Will the May 2010 elections deliver?; The May 1 question: What hope has labor after the May 2010 polls?”

The initial astonishment with the speed of the election results was just as quickly replaced with doubts on the credibility of the May 2010 polls. Claims of electoral fraud and other irregularities continue to surface more than three weeks after the Philippines held its first ever automated national polls. Calls for an independent probe emerged even as the House committee on suffrage has already begun its inquiry.

In the eye of the storm aside from the Commission on Elections (Comelec) is private contractor Smartmatic-TIM, which last year bagged the 2010 poll automation contract with the lowest bid of P7.2 billion. But as questions on the integrity of the Automated Election System (AES) technology provided by Smartmatic-TIM for the May 10 polls mount, less focus has been given on what exactly was the role played by the private consortium in the last elections.

This raises the issue of “election privatization”, a phenomenon that is feared even in the most advanced countries as undermining the elections as an important democratic exercise. While the use of the latest technology to speed up the voting and counting process is not inherently bad, the use of privately-owned technology creates some serious problems.

According to the Progressive States Network, a US-based policy and research group, the fundamental basis for the freedom and fairness of elections lies in its public administration. “Without government control of elections and public scrutiny of the process, establishing the legitimacy of election results is not possible,” said the group.

It cited the case of 18,000 missing votes in Sarasota, Florida during the 2006 congressional race that had a winning margin of only 236 votes. The private firm Election Systems and Software Company which handled the Sarasota polls denied public access to its voting machines and software for examination because they were supposedly trade secrets. A local court upheld the privacy rights of the said corporation.

The Sarasota case was just one of the many electoral fiascos in the US that involved private poll automation firms. Perhaps the most notorious among these firms was Sequoia Voting Systems, which has been embroiled in several controversies ranging from weak security system, poor quality ballots, and substandard hardware. In 2008, Sequoia threatened with lawsuits the independent experts who wanted to scrutinize its voting machines for use in New Jersey citing intellectual property rights.

Incidentally, Smartmatic acquired Sequoia in 2005 but was forced to give it up in 2006 following a probe by the Committee on Foreign Investment in the US (CFIUS), an inter-agency body of the US government that reviews national security implications of foreign investments. But Smartmatic maintains links with Sequoia through IPR ownership over some of the latter’s election products. Sequoia was also one of the losing bidders in the Philippines’ poll automation program.

Thus, reports of malfunctioning Precinct Count Optical Scan (PCOS) machines, claims of pre-programming, and other technical anomalies are not unique to the country’s first attempt at national poll automation. Proponents claim that a private company can still be held accountable by the public. Smartmatic-TIM, for instance, is bound by the terms and conditions stipulated in its contract with the Comelec.

Public exercise, private interest

However, the liability of Smartmatic still does not resolve the fundamental issue of a private company, with vested private interests, taking over a very public matter that is the elections. It makes the elections more vulnerable to fraud and manipulation—on top of traditional forms of cheating such as vote buying, flying voters, harassment, etc.

Private automation technology becomes untrustworthy because of its nature as private property immune to public scrutiny. In the case of Smartmatic-TIM, the Comelec refused to conduct an exhaustive review of the source code by independent information technology (IT) experts and specialists. A source code review will help determine if Smartmatic-TIM’s computers will properly read and accurately count the ballots.

Smartmatic-TIM is also planning to sue losing presidential bets– Jamby Madrigal, JC Delos Reyes and Nick Perlas– for the supposedly unauthorized inspection of PCOS machines. The machines, according to Smartmatic-TIM, are private properties. Madrigal and company tried to inspect the machines due to suspicions of irregularities after the machines were discovered in the residence of a Smartmatic-TIM technician.

It is precisely for these reasons that developed countries like Germany and the Netherlands have reconsidered the use of privatized poll automation technology, which violates the very public nature of elections.

Allowing a private firm to invest and participate in a crucial public interest such as the national elections is no different from the problems brought about by privatizing public utilities and social services like power, water and health care, among others. In the Philippines and in the rest of the developing world, private control and management has not resulted in a more efficient performance of public enterprises. In the same way, election privatization has not brought about transparent and credible elections.

Turning the various functions and responsibilities of government to profit-oriented businesses has led to huge social costs, and sacrificed the people’s welfare in favor of corporate processes and interests. With election privatization, what is worse is that it offers opportunities for politicians seeking public office to pursue their self interests in possible deals with the private consortium in the national polls.

The poll automation project, deemed as a major positive step to prevent another ‘Hello Garci’ scandal, sacrificed important features such as transparency and oversight in favor of the private consortium in charge of the national polls. If there is one lesson that the country’s experience in the May 2010 automated polls clearly presents, it is that there is no shortcut to a credible and truly democratic elections. IBON Features

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