Business Mirror - Seven hours

18 November 2020

By James Jimenez | Business Mirror

The 2019 National and Local Elections were considered to be among the most credible elections ever held in the Philippines, bar none. And yet, hanging like a cloud over that achievement are the seven hours on election night, during which media outlets stopped updating their reports of election results. With our penchant for coming up with catch labels for these things, that period of time has since come to be known as the 7-hour glitch. And to this day, those three words—“seven-hour glitch”—are used as a snappy retort intended to negate any notion that elections in the Philippines could be trusted.

So what was it exactly that happened that night? What exactly was the seven-hour glitch? To understand that incident fully, we must first understand what happens at the end of election day.

When voting has ended, and before they do anything else, the vote counting machines print out eight copies of the summary of the votes garnered by each candidate. These documents are called the election returns, and all eight are distributed to eight designated recipients, including the watchers of political parties. This means that at this point, the election results of each particular precinct are already known by both the Comelec and the representatives of the candidates.

Once the printing of the eight copies is done, the digital version (or a soft copy) of the returns is electronically transmitted to the city or municipal canvassing center where the results from all the various precincts in the city or municipality are tallied up in a process called “canvassing.” The same data is also sent to the Comelec Central Server, which is the main repository of election results data. And finally, the soft copies of the election returns are sent to the Transparency Server.

So, at the end of the voting day, the election results are printed and digital copies are sent to three (and this is an important point, so remember it) different destinations, each one separate and operating independently of each other: the canvassing center, the central server, and the transparency server. For the sake of our discussion, let’s call them Track 1, Track 2, and Track 3.

Track 1—or the data sent to the canvassing center—is the most important track of all because it is the path that leads to election results being proclaimed. Once the election returns from the various precincts are received, the canvassing system at the city or municipality canvassing center outputs a canvass report, a soft copy of which is electronically transmitted to the provincial canvassing center.

At the provincial canvassing center, all the canvass reports of the various cities and municipalities within the province are totaled up to produce the provincial canvass; all provincial canvasses are then sent to the National Board of Canvassers where all those results are once again totaled. So that’s three canvassing stations. At the municipal canvassing station, local election results are proclaimed; at the provincial, provincial elections results; and at the national, the results for Senator and Party-List. And all of these results flow from Track 1.

Track 2—or the data sent to the Central Server—is there to ensure that there is a back up of the data received by Track 1, but Track 2 data isn’t used to generate canvass reports at any level.

Track 3—or the data sent to the Transparency Server—like Track 2 is not used to generate canvass reports at any level. Instead, Track 3 data is served up to media outlets and the accredited citizen’s arm, so they can report out the progress of the counting. In effect, therefore, Track 3 data has no ability to affect the outcome of the results (only Track 1 data can do that), but it does give the general public the ability to track how the counting is going. And in 2019, it was Track 3 that went dark for about seven hours.

What happened?

Track 3 data goes into the Transparency Server, right? From there, the data gets “pushed” out electronically to various media outlets, which then use the data they receive to report on the progress of the vote counting. Imagine, if you will, a big road which ends with multiple smaller roads branching out from it. That big road is where the election data coming from the various precincts—called election returns, remember?—comes into the transparency server. From the transparency server, the data is then supposed to be pushed to media, or in this example, the smaller streets branching out from the main road.

Early evening of election day, unfortunately, that junction got overwhelmed with the amount of data coming in from all over the country, all at the same time. As a result of the congestion, no data could get through to the media, and with no data coming in, media reporting simply got stuck.

Important to note again that we are just talking about Track 3 data. While all of this drama was going on, Tracks 1 and 2 were performing precisely as they were supposed to. Track 1 was resulting in proclamations all over the country; and Track 2 was essentially compiling a back-up record of election results. The gridlock on Track 3, or the now infamous “glitch,” on the other hand, meant that the news flash updates about the election results had all but stopped.

Next week: What did the Comelec do about the glitch, what did the media know, and why did it take so long to fix?