Cheap, low-quality SD cards to blame for faulty voting machines - COMELEC

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Metro Manila (CNN Philippines, May 14) — The Commission on Elections is pinning the blame for malfunctioning vote counting machines (VCM) to cheap and low-quality SD (secure digital) or memory cards that led to voting and transmission delays.

COMELEC Chairman Sheriff Abas said that 1,665 SD cards tripped out on voting day, representing 1.9 percent of the total which had to be reconfigured before they can be used. He said this affected multiple voters assigned to each VCM.

The poll body said the error message for corrupted or unsynchronized cards was the most common issue for VCMs.

"We suspect it's the low quality of the SD cards," Commissioner Marlon Casquejo said in a media briefing on Tuesday, noting that the winning supplier only asked for ₱29 million despite the COMELEC's projected expense of ₱80 million. "What do we expect for ₱29 million SD cards?"

While COMELEC said it was prepared to repair or replace SD cards equivalent to six percent of the total deployed, Abas said these still caused delays in the process.

Apart from this, Casquejo said SD cards may have been affected as VCMs were transported to polling centers, while upgrades to the machines as well as storage defects may have also contributed to the hitches.

READ: Defective vote-counting machines mar midterm polls

Abas added that the big difference in this year's polls is that the machines, marking pens, paper, and SD cards used were sourced from multiple providers, as opposed to a bundled or one-supplier procurement in 2016, because of legal requirements. The COMELEC chose to buy the VCMs for the 2019 polls, which left them with the option to buy the other materials from different suppliers.

"Doon 'yung nakita naming problema, hindi masyadong nagma-match... Pero wala kaming magawa because that is part of the procurement law," Abas said.

[Translation: That's where the problem is: the materials didn't match... But we can't do anything because that is part of the procurement law.]

Under the law, which requires government agencies to accept the lowest bid for a product or service that they need to purchase as long as the supplier meets the requirements. The poll chief said that machine provider Smartmatic took part in the bidding for SD cards, but lost because of a higher contract price.

The COMELEC said the procured items passed quality control tests ahead of the elections, but cited that those were done in a "controlled environment."

"Those are suspected problems or issues that we are going to investigate. We are going to investigate after this elections kung ano ba talaga 'yung naging cause ng pagiging defective ng SD cards. We will try to look into that," Casquejo said. "If it's the low-quality SD cards talaga, then we will not pay the provider."

So far, Casquejo said they still need to reconfigure about 300 SD cards.

"Hopefully in the future, it will be our decision point most likely in 2022 because mas malaking preparation 'yun. Pag-aaralan namin kung una, gagamitin pa sa pangatlong beses 'yung VCM or magli-lease ng bago, or magba-bundled (procurement) kami this time [We will see if we will use the VCM for a third time, or we will lease new ones, or we will do bundled procurement]," Abas said. 

Casquejo, an IT expert, said that he personally would not recommend using these VCMs for the presidential polls, saying that these are old. However, this decision will depend on the COMELEC en banc.

Casquejo added that he has already asked their legal team to review their contracts with these suppliers to see if they can be penalized for these problems.

Casquejo went on to explain the seven-hour delay in transmitting voting data to the COMELEC transparency and media servers, saying that the automated FTP application froze after precincts simutaneously transmitted results shortly after polls closed at 6 p.m.

On Tuesday morning, votes on the transparency server appeared to have slipped, which the Comelec attributed to a Java error which required a restart of the FTP application to reflect the latest numbers.

READ: Explanation on COMELEC-provided election results 'glitch' sought

Casquejo said he will be proposing to the en banc to make public the audit and system logs of the servers to show that the votes are intact.

Canvassing is set to start Tuesday afternoon led by members of the COMELEC en banc. The official vote tally will be based on election results sent by municipalities, cities and provinces.

"Nagka-aberya sa transparency server so bantayan niyo na lang itong official [There's been problems with the transparency server so just monitor the official count.]. We assure you of the integrity of the count," said COMELEC Commissioner Luie Tito Guia.

Despite these glitches and some reports of violence, Abas said that there is no failure of elections for the midterm polls.