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NEC computer center the heart of registration process

NEC computer center the heart of registration process

"THIS is probably the only dust-free room in the country," jokes Chea Sok

Huor, director of the National Election Committee's computer center, as he strides

into a blue-carpeted chamber aglow with the light of 104 computer terminals.

The room holds the electronic nerve-centre of Cambodia's election machine. It's the

election data base: a computer record of every registration card in the country.

"We have 320 data entry technicians, working round the clock in three shifts,

six days a week," says Sok Huor adding that 67 of his staff did the same job

for UNTAC in 1993.

These people are the gatekeepers ensuring Cambodia's el-ection data is clean and

accurate. It's a job their bosses insist they take very seriously.

"We have an internal rule: no discussion of politics," Huor says firmly.

"No sideline jobs with political parties and you can't bring political people

inside here.

"I can guarantee the security of this computer center. Outside, I can't say.

"The system we have in place now is for the Provincial Election Commissions

(PECs) to bring bags of registration cards to the center," Huor explains.

"We take photographs of each bag and the person who brought the bag. If there

are any irregularities - bags that are torn or improperly fastened - we report this

to the secretary general of the NEC.

"Mistakes are made by the people doing the registering, like voter cards put

into the wrong bags. They don't seem to realize how committed we are to doing things

right. Nothing but the best. We are independent, neutral, democratic, transparent."

The bags come in three sizes: "A" bags from each polling station are put

into "C" bags from each commune which in turn are put into large "D"

bags from each province.

If the bags pass inspection, they are moved into the computer room. Here supervisors

separate cancelled cards from valid ones.

Cards that were cancelled by the PECs - for incomplete information, faulty photographs,

etc - are logged in by number and cannot be used again.

Data entry operators then log the information on the valid cards onto a master computer

list: name, age, sex, address, date of birth and registration serial number.

The lists are checked again by supervisors against each handwritten registration

card.

"This is because the data operators make mistakes too," Huor explains.

"A small change in Cambodian script can make a big difference. The operators

are logged in so we can keep track of their speed and efficiency.

"There are five teams of 20 operators each with a supervisor and a chief supervisor

responsible for each shift. The process is going smoothly now, at 85% of the speed

we'd planned, processing 43,000-45,000 cards per shift out of a maximum of 50,000."

Huor left Cambodia for the US in 1975 and has returned on many business deals since

the late 1980s. He helped computerize the operations of the airport's immigration

department, the passport division of the foreign affairs department and the Tourism

Ministry.

The senior technical adviser is Pan Sorasak, a Cambodian-American who returned to

his homeland for the 1993 elections as chief of the data processing section, the

highest ranking Cambodian-American hired by UNTAC.

"The computer software also dates from the UNTAC era," adds Sorasak, who

holds university degrees in engineering, computer science and mathematics, and has

done data processing for the American oil company UNOCAL over the past 18 years.

"We keep a daily flow chart of [registration card] deliveries from each province,"

adds Sorasak.

"We'll be able to check these against previous statistics from 1993. We expect

the number of registered voters to have increased to 5.5 million from 4.3 million

during the UNTAC time. This is due to population increase, refugees coming back from

the border and other areas that are now open to the government: Pailin, Anlong Veng."

The European Union estimates that 30% of the 5.5 million target was registered the

first week, 27% the second and 21% the third. The final tally after the fourth week

was estimated at 97%, or 5.3 million registered.

"We didn't register ourselves yet," admits Sorasak with a laugh. "People

are lazy. They wait until the last minute. Including me... This whole process has

been a race against time. Two months ago we didn't even have air conditioners. The

place was like an oven."

Huor goes on to explain the endgame mechanics of the election. Between June 18-21,

manuscript voter lists will be posted in each province for a last re-checking and

correction, especially on the spelling of names.

The computer center will run a computer check for identical names on a province-wide

basis to prevent multiple voting. Registration cards with identical names that match

with other factors like birthdate and address can then be cancelled. Once confirmed

by the provinces, a final computerized list of registered voters will be dispatched

by the NEC computer center and posted on July 23.

On election day, July 26, voters will present their cards - complete with serial

number, photograph and thumbprint - to be compared with the computer center's list.

Thumbs will be dipped in indelible ink to prevent people from voting more than once.

"During UNTAC, we used ultraviolet light for this check," comments Sorasak.

"Now it's natural light, an improvement I think, though people complain."

Finally, the voter ticks off his choice of party symbol on an A3-size paper ballot,

folds it four times and deposits it in the ballot box.

"At the end of the UNTAC time, the computers were left here - $2million worth

of equipment," says Sorasak. "We suggested that the computers be put to

use for a national payroll system. The government dropped the project as not worthwhile.

While expensive, the computer system would have controlled how many people were on

the government payroll. Cambodia didn't know what to do with the computers until

now."

"After the [1998] election, the database we have developed can be used for other

purposes, like a census," says Sorasak. "It's something to be proud of

that all the employees at the computer center, this time around, are Cambodian. One

hundred percent decision making has been done by Cambodians."

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