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Philippines election: Doubts arise over electronic voting machines

New computerized electronic voting machines are meant to prevent fraud in Philippines election in May. But in tests, the voting machines rejected ballots and failed to connect to the cell phone networks to transmit results.

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The machine then uses public cell-phone networks to transmit the tallies to central computers for the final counting. It should take just 48 hours for definitive results to appear, Comelec says.

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Smartmatic says that the encryption cannot be broken.

New system tests poorly

But critics, among them politicians, nongovernmental organizations, the media, and voters, worry that the technology will not work properly or can be sabotaged.

Two series of field tests conducted by Comelec in January in representative samples of precincts showed that the machines frequently rejected ballots, usually because ovals were not filled in properly, and sometimes failed to connect to the cell-phone networks.

Voters have expressed ignorance about the new system. The Pulse Asia survey found that 71 percent have little or no knowledge of how it works.

There is worry that many voters will be unable to cope with a ballot form that is more than two feet long. A preelection information campaign is planned to show people how to fill out the forms.

About a third of the country has no cellphone network coverage. Satellite communication is Smartmatic’s solution for these areas. But the field tests showed that this can be difficult. In one case it took three hours to establish an uplink.

Same old threats of sabotage

There is also the usual fear of sabotage. The leading candidate in the presidential election, Senator Benigno “Noynoy” Aquino has spoken darkly of a "plan to affect the outcome of the elections.” He gave no specifics.

Comelec says it is looking into reports that 5,000 cellphone signal jammers have been imported illegally.

The commission has said that in an emergency, it is prepared to revert to the manual system to count up to 30 percent of the vote.

But if there are delays in counting just a fraction of the votes, it could damage the credibility of the election. Many people may assume that lag time is being used to rig the results.

Opinion polls indicate that the presidential election will be a close contest between Mr. Aquino and Senator Manuel “Manny” Villar.

(Read about Aquino’s late mother and former president, Corazon Aquino, here.)

“There is no shortage of opportunities to create a political vacuum or of individuals or groups ready to take advantage of chaos arising from an election failure and to grab power,” says Doronila.

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