- Father of automated elections

By Artemio V. Panganiban |

Friends and readers challenged the opening sentence of my column last Sunday that stated: “Compared with prior exercises, the last elections were generally peaceful and orderly.” They argued, “How can the polls be peaceful and orderly when in your next sentence, you correctly said that they had been infested with vote-buying, automation glitches and overvoting?”

Well, “Compared with prior exercises” is the operative part of that first sentence. To understand the comparison, let us go back to Dec. 22, 1997, when Congress enacted Republic Act No. 8436 mandating the automation of the electoral process.

Based on this law, the Commission on Elections (Comelec) wanted to computerize the 2004 presidential polls by entering into three contracts (1) to clean up the list of voters, (2) to automate the counting and canvassing, and (3) to hasten the transmission of votes.

Due, however, to constitutional and legal flaws and to suspicious bidding procedures, the three contracts were invalidated by the Supreme Court in Comelec v. Quijano-Padilla (Sept. 18, 2002), Information Technology Foundation v. Comelec (Jan. 13, 2004) and Brillantes v. Comelec (June 15, 2004), respectively.

Of these three decisions, the second was the most crucial, because it nullified the Comelec contract involving the counting and canvassing of the ballots for having been undertaken with “inexplicable haste, without adequate checking and observing mandatory financial, technical and legal requirements… in violation of law and jurisprudence.”

The Court was initially hesitant to promulgate its judgment because it would surely lead to the cancellation of automation and to a reversion to manual election. However, it finally opted to fulfill its duty to “let justice be done though the heavens may fall” (Fiat justitia ruat caelum), and tasked me to write the decision. Indeed, as a result, the 2004 and 2007 polls were conducted “mano-mano.”

To hasten automation, a new law (RA 9369) updated RA 8436. And to avoid illegal contracts, retired Supreme Court justice Jose A. R. Melo was named Comelec chair in 2008. With him at the helm, computerization was speeded up, starting with the 2009 special polls in the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao or ARMM.

With lessons learned, the Comelec courageously automated the 2010 presidential election. Nonetheless, logistical difficulties accompanied the use of the precinct count optical scan (PCOS) machines, reaching a crescendo when they failed to read the ballots during their final test runs.

Verily, Election Day itself was marred by imponderables: Too many PCOS machines failed to function properly; compact flash (CF) cards were missing; ballots were late, or spoiled by dirt, perspiration and careless handling; names of candidates were misprinted and ovals misaligned; etc.

Warts and all, the 2010 automated election was still deemed successful as it installed a new president without any protest from his opponents. Thereafter, to give his replacement sufficient time to plan the new polls, Melo voluntarily retired from the Comelec ahead of his term.

While some hiccups were remedied, the 2013 and 2016 elections were still humped with difficulties, including the Comelec’s refusal to open the source code for review; restriction of the random manual audit to only one per legislative district; and aversion to a parallel count.

In 2018, the PCOS machines were improved, modernized and renamed vote-counting machines, or VCMs. And this year, the poll body has become more transparent, accountable and tolerant of criticisms.

Given the many defeats of the Comelec in the Supreme Court and the incessant criticisms of the PCOS machines, I initially thought that Melo risked too much in accepting the chairmanship. After all, he retired from the Court with an enviable record of performance.

But, in spite of the overwhelming legal, technological and logistical odds, he succeeded. Over the years, the system has been improved such that today, despite the remaining problems of vote-buying, glitches and overvoting, the elections have become credible.

For daring the odds and succeeding, Melo, I think, should be recognized as the “Father of Automated Elections in the Philippines,” a title he richly deserves as he celebrates his 87th birthday on May 30.