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Business World : Citizens groups’ concerns about transparent elections

News & Interviews
20 October 2021

By Business World

Citizens groups which have vowed to help the Commission on Elections (Comelec) achieve transparent and honest elections on May 2022 have had regular consultations with civil society organizations and IT practitioners about possible gaps in the automated election system. These gaps are being closely studied by these citizens groups and IT practitioners (who had long called everyone’s attention to these gaps in vain for the last 10 years) when even non-administration political parties, presumably still preoccupied with forming their respective powerhouse slates, have not publicly raised questions about the lack of consolidated rules to address these gaps.

IT practitioners say they have fought lonely battles without any support from the legal profession, congress, media, and even political parties and other interest groups. Comelec- and Church-accredited groups like the Parish Pastoral Council for Responsible Voting (PPCRV) have devoted themselves mainly to voters’ education and guidance, which a great number of groups, including Comelec, are doing; poll watching (on election day) and quick count based on unaudited figures spewed out by vote counting machines and transmitted to several servers, the number and purpose of which have yet to be clearly explained.

Other groups, like the Tagapagtanggol ng Watawat (TNW), the Network for Justice and Compassion (NET JC), Faith Initiative, and the Automated Election System (AES) Watch have enumerated about a dozen and a half or 18 areas of concern in a number of public forums over the past several months. Some of them, like the AES Watch and the UP-based Center for People Empowerment and Governance, have, however, been at it for years.

The first issue raised is any person’s right to take pictures of the Election Returns (ERs) and Certificates of Canvas (COC). The main reason for raising this issue is the right of the public to see the ER in real time before it is transmitted by any means to the municipal or city canvassers. It is envisioned that right after the precinct closes and a count is conducted, the public will be able to take pictures of the ER and upload the same to a public website.

This system duplicates the process of transmitting the ERs to the municipal/city board of canvassers. Transparency is achieved by Comelec uploading the count in a public website. That public website will be the fourth recipient of data aside from the Kapisanan ng Brodkaster ng Pilipinas (KBP), the PPCRV, among others. Citizens groups caution against the use of a transparency server given many questions about the operation of such a server.

The Voter Verifiable Paper Audit Trail (VVPAT) was a feature added to the election system in 2016. The voter is issued a receipt right after he casts his vote. The receipt serves as a check against fraud and machine breakdown: the voter can check through the receipt given to him if the persons he voted for were registered in the receipt. The receipt is placed inside a receptacle. The VVPAT, however, is no guarantee that the Vote Counting Machine (VCM) counted one’s vote for a particular candidate or candidates. The following question therefore arises: do the readings match among the VCM, the VVPAT and data registered in the Secure Data (SD) card and the transmitted data? The VVPAT shows what the VCM read but it cannot show that what the VCM read was registered in the Secure Data (SD) card and were the same data transmitted for canvassing.

One answer to this question is provided by the Ransom Manual Audit (RMA). By doing the RMA on the same day right after the polls close (but not after several days in a different location), we move closer to ensuring that the vote is registered properly. The RMA therefore helps guarantee accuracy in a transparent manner.

The National Movement for Free Elections (Namfrel) has consistently been pushing for the same-day RMA since the implementation of the automated election system in 2010. The RMA serves as a check between the actual count of individual ballots and the figures declared in the ERs, COCs, the digitally generated ERs in possession of the PPCRV, and, eventually, the data in the SD card.

Citizens groups insist that the RMA be done right then and there at the close of the polling precinct among randomly selected precincts. The Comelec emphasizes that there are too many logistical problems in doing the RMA right after the close of polling precincts. The poll body also states that the random selection of the precincts in randomly selected areas be in accordance with the scientific processes of the Philippine Statistics Authority (PSA). Using other methods like the tambiolo employed by the Philippine Charity Sweepstakes Office for its lotto draws does not conform with PSA specifications. Citizens groups point out that Comelec’s insistence that the RMA be done at the Comelec office in Intramuros is fraught with risks as it requires that VCMs/SD cards be brought to the National Capital Region, especially if they come from far flung areas in different parts of the archipelago. Citizens groups ask: why create that gap of several days when so many things can happen at any stage of the transport process?

The thorniest issue however, is the absence of Implementing Rules and Regulations (IRR) of the AES law. It is a matter of standard legislative and legal practice that IRRs are promulgated by the agency implementing the law soon after the passage of the said law. In Comelec’s case however, there is still no IRR 24 years after the law was passed in 1997 and amended in 2007.

In a Senate hearing on Monday on the Comelec budget efficiently conducted by re-electionist Senator Risa Hontiveros, vice-chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, the citizens groups, as expected, brought up the IRR issue again. The Comelec responded that it had issued “many IRRs” and General Instructions (GIs), which is however only for Comelec and Department of Education personnel and others tasked to help manage and administer the elections, and not a comprehensive document covering all stakeholders.

Hontiveros pointed out that piecemeal (“pira piraso”) GI’s do not make an IRR. The citizens groups chimed in to say that GIs do not respond to the intent of some important election processes such as the digital signatures, public and Comelec website, and continuity plan, to name a few. Citizens groups assert that the Comelec just has contingency plans in cases of defective VCMs and CCS or Consolidation and Canvassing System. They point out that the GIs do not have an end-to-end coverage of the AES Law as they have no GIs for the central and transparency server which, by the way, is not required under the AES law.

These concerns and many more will continue to be raised until after some satisfactory solution is formulated. The basic problem is that confidence in the integrity of elections is at an all-time low and various questions have been raised about the Comelec itself. It does not help that by February 2022, all seven commissioners would have been appointed by the President under an environment of partisanship triggered by the super high stakes in the 2022 elections.

Clearly the burden of having an honest and transparent election falls on the shoulders of the President, who would have appointed all seven commissioners in the Comelec. It must be remembered that the Comelec will have the government and all its instrumentalities like the Armed Forces of the Philippines, the Philippine National Police, and the local government units, among others, under its control for 120 days before and 30 days after the elections.

With such power and the offer of help from citizens groups and civil society, Comelec commissioners and those who appointed them are in a truly make or break situation.

Philip Ella Juico’s areas of interest include the protection and promotion of democracy, free markets, sustainable development, social responsibility and sports as a tool for social development. He obtained his doctorate in business at De La Salle University. Dr. Juico served as Secretary of Agrarian Reform during the Corazon C. Aquino administration.