: VCM glitches bug polls; Comelec finally not reusing them in 2025

By Dona Z. Pazzibugan, Tina G. Santos |

MANILA, Philippines — The automated national and local elections on Monday was marred by the malfunctioning of about 2,000 vote-counting machines (VCMs) across the country, prompting the Commission on Elections (Comelec) to decide to discard them in future polls.

Among the glitches reported as of noon were paper jams (940 incidents), rejected ballots (606), faulty VCM scanners (158), printers failing to produce output (87), and not printing properly (76).

“I think this is the last dance for our VCMs. We will not use them anymore in the 2025 (midterm) elections,” said Comelec Commissioner Marlon Casquejo, chair of the election steering committee.

“Even if they say the budget for the 2025 elections is small, we will insist that we would not use these VCMs for the succeeding elections. The VCMs have reached their limit, (their) life span,” stressed Casquejo in a midday news briefing with the six other top poll officials at the Philippine International Convention Center (PICC).

The Comelec said the VCMs, which were acquired from automated elections supplier Smartmatic Corp., have been used since the 2013 midterm polls.

The machines are around nine years old, Casquejo said, exceeding the Commission on Audit’s (COA) allowed life span of five years for technical machines.

According to Comelec Commissioner George Garcia, by 10 a.m., at least 1,867 polling precincts reported that their VCMs malfunctioned, though the technical issues with the equipment were eventually resolved.

As of 11 a.m., the Comelec said 51 VCMs and 102 SD cards needed replacement. The Comelec has 1,900 contingency VCMs on standby, according to Casquejo.

Garcia said the final testing and sealing of all the VCMs deployed in 106,174 polling precincts was “not a guarantee that they will not malfunction.”

“Even for new vehicles, you will only find out the problems once it’s yours. That goes for old machines. We admit the machines are already old but they’re still working. They can count correctly,” Garcia said,

Based on Comelec protocol, Garcia said voters could entrust their filled-out ballots to the Board of Election Inspectors (BEIs), which would “batch feed” the ballots once the defective VCM or SD card has been repaired or replaced.

“This has been part of the protocol before. This is for contingency. We have no choice. Some machines will encounter problems,” Garcia said.

Faulty VCMs, aside from other issues such as missing names, long queues, power outages and undercounting of votes, affected the conduct of the elections in practically across the country.

Election officials found 23 defective VCMs and four SD cards in Central Luzon; at least 33 in Calabarzon (Cavite, Laguna, Batangas, Rizal and Quezon), and an undetermined number in the Cordillera region, Ilocos, the Bicol provinces of Albay, Camarines Sur and Sorsogon, and Mimaropa (Mindoro provinces, Marinduque, Romblon and Palawan).

Lawyer Elmo Duque, Comelec director in Central Luzon, said the problematic VCMs in Nueva Ecija, Bulacan, Zambales, Aurora, Bataan and in Tarlac were immediately replaced as the region had 194 VCMs on standby.

The region also has technical hubs to speed up repair of defective SD cards, he added.

In Kalinga province, five machines had to be repaired or replaced at the start of election day due to problematic scanners, said lawyer Elenita Tabangin Capuyan, the province’s election officer.

In Baguio City, a VCM conked out while it scanned the ballot of an reelectionist councilor at Lucban Elementary School. In Dagupan City, two VCMs failed at East Central School and Pugaro Elementary School.

In Calabarzon, poll officials in the voting centers with defective VCMs decided to proceed by asking the voters to fill out ballots that would be later fed to the VCMs in the presence of poll watchers and representatives from accredited citizens’ arms, according to Police Maj. Mary Anne Crester Torres, the regional police information officer.

In Albay, malfunctioning VCMs were reported in the town of Malinao and in Legazpi City.

Inaccurate receipts
A voter in Malinao, meanwhile, complained his receipt showed he had voted for some candidates despite leaving these portions blank, said Fr. Eric Martillano, Parish Pastoral Council for Responsible Voting (PPCRV)-Namfrel Albay chair. A similar case was also reported by a voter at the Bicol University College of Science in Legazpi City, he added.

In the village of Poblacion in the northern town of San Vicente in Palawan, Aldrin de Leon said his votes for president and vice president were marked as “undervote” while only one of the seven senatorial candidates he shaded was read by the VCM.

In Cebu City, a VCM underwent repair for three hours after it failed to print voting receipts.

Several areas in the Davao region reported some malfunctioning VCMs, with at least eight machines either replaced or repaired, according to Comelec assistant regional director Gay Enumerables.

In Davao de Oro province, at least four VCMs were repaired after these failed to work, according to Norliza Mamukid, provincial election officer of Davao de Oro.

Same old problem
The first nationwide automated elections in the Philippines was held on May 10, 2010, using precinct count optical scan (PCOS) machines leased from Smartmatic for P7.2 billion to record, count and transmit the votes to canvassing centers where the votes were automatically added up.

During the 2010 national elections, the Comelec said about 400 of the 76,300 machines had problems but most were already replaced.

For the 2013 midterm elections, the Comelec bought the 82,000 voting machines used in the 2010 elections. Glitches hounded the 2013 automated elections, too, as a 44-hour lag in transmission of election returns was reported during that year.

For the 2016 national elections, the Comelec and Smartmatic signed a contract for the lease of 70,977 optical mark reader (OMR) machines.

The poll body was forced to lease all-new voting machines for the 2016 polls as it had no time to refurbish the old PCOS machines. The Comelec en banc then decided to use 93,977 new OMR machines for the 2016 polls.

The OMRs were introduced as vote-counting machines (VCMs) in November 2015 during a demonstration aimed at building public confidence in the devices.

According to then Comelec Chair Andres Bautista, 2,363 of the 92,509 precincts reported problems with VCMs during the 2016 elections but some of the hitches were immediately fixed.

During the 2019 midterm elections, Comelec deployed 97,345 VCMs they leased in 2016 from Smartmatic. The poll body bought these VCMs in 2018. At least 1,333 VCMs malfunctioned during the balloting for the 2019 elections.

In February 2021, Comelec said it intended to use the same Smartmatic machines for Monday’s elections and allocated P660.7 million for their refurbishment.