Automated Elections Do Not Automatically Make Philippines a Democracy

The Philippines will hold its first automated general elections ever in May 2010. However, automation doesn’t guarantee fair elections. Does Florida in the 2000 U.S. elections ring a bell? Diebold may be gone now (it sold off its voting machine business to Election Systems & Software), but its competitors seem just as shady. And one of them is working to automate the Philippines’ voting system: Smartmatic, an Amsterdam-registered, Florida-based firm which formed a consortium with Filipino firm Total Information Management to provide voting machines and technical support to the COMELEC (Philippines Commission on Elections).

Smartmatic and its partner, Bizta Corporation, provided the voting machines and software for the 2004 Recall Referendum against Hugo Chavez, which was widely believed to be rigged. The EU refused to recognize the election due to absurd restrictions placed on observers. Smartmatic’s owners, both Venezuelan engineers, own Bizta Corporation, a voting software company that the Venezuelan government bailed out through a 28% stake in the company and a ‘routine loan’ backed by equity in the company. As Richard Brand explains, no one collateralizes their loans with equity unless they want control over management as well. The Venezuelan government divested from Bizta after a Miami Herald investigation exposed their relationship. Likewise, Smartmatic divested from its subsidiary, Sequoia Voting Systems, after the Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States began to question its role in a messy Chicago election.

So far, there seems nothing dirty behind COMELEC awarding the contract to Smartmatic. Smartmatic made the lowest bid (7.2 million pesos, or US$155 million) on a government contract for which was budgeted 11.3 billion pesos, or US$244 million. Some critics smelled a rat when they thought Smartmatic consortium violated the 60% Filipino, 40% foreign ownership requirement under Executive Order 584 (issued in 2006) for companies that win government contracts. However, a later amendment (RA 9369, issued in 2007) allowed the COMELEC to procure foreign vendors for the automation of elections.

Some kinks have appeared in the automation process. Smartmatic delayed delivery of the remaining 49%  of voting machines purchased by COMELEC to February 28, 2010, leaving just two months to customize and test the machines, print ballots and train operators for a completely new voting system. Nonetheless, the government has yet to enforce the contractual penalty for lateness: more than 7 million pesos (about US$151,000) per day of delay in delivery. Meanwhile, public confidence in electronic voting has begun to wane due to fears of sabotage and COMELEC incompetence.

There is no method of vote-counting, manual or electronic, that is completely immune to cheating. One can only hope that candidates and their minions will remain civil by keeping their hands out of the ballot box (or software rather). The Philippines needs uncontested election results to ameliorate social unrest and boost investor confidence. Another controversial election will only exacerbate mistrust of government and perpetuate the political apathy that prevents countries like the Philippines from ever achieving a substantive democracy. If they can’t even rely on machines to count votes correctly, Filipinos may feel they have no recourse but violence to be heard.

Automated or not, elections alone do not a democracy make. The Maguindanao massacre ahead of gubernatorial elections should be a stark reminder of a very undemocratic run-up to a traditionally democratic process, while the fertilizer fund scam and ZTE-NBN telecom scandal under Arroyo’s administration (accused of vote rigging at the 2004 elections – see “Hello Garci!” scandal) should remind us of the undemocratic actions that can happen post-election.