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Manila Bulletin - Comelec on trial

News & Interviews
24 July 2019

By Former Vice President Jejomar C. Binay | Manila Bulletin


A few days after the mid-term elections in May, no less than President Duterte himself called on the Commission on Elections (Comelec) to replace Smartmatic owing to allegations of election fraud.

Almost two months have passed since the President’s remarks. But after the perfunctory reactions from Comelec officials, it seems that the poll body has opted to keep mum on the touchy subject.

The issue, however, would be hard to brush off. The positioning for the 2022 presidential elections is expected to start in earnest. But unlike the 2010 and 2016 presidential elections, there is now a cloud of doubt on the reliability of electronic voting.

And in a span of nine years, it appears that Comelec’s credibility has plummeted from the nearly universal acclaim it received in 2010.

The descent to ignominy began in the eyes of many observers in 2017, with a very public spat with then Comelec Chairman Andres Bautista. Among the many damning revelations made were supposed documents showing alleged commissions received by the former poll chief from their election technology supplier, Smartmatic.

Bautista did not deny this, but claimed these were “referral fees” unrelated to his work as Comelec chief. Needless to state, his explanation did not sit well with several legislators who described the alleged pay-offs as unethical. It also constituted an act of bribery on the part of Smartmatic.

But the controversy over the transactions also raised concerns over the credibility of automated elections. Several legislators raised the issue of “automated cheating,” and called for legislative inquiries. Some quarter even proposed adopting hybrid elections in the future.

The issue, however, died with the resignation of Bautista and his hasty departure for the United States where he continues to reside. We lost the opportunity to dig deeper into the allegations of electronic poll fraud.

With the spotlight once again on Comelec, a window has reopened that would allow us to probe deeper into the conduct of the polls, the May mid-term elections in particular.

Note the following problems encountered during the elections:

A total of 961 vote-counting machines (VCMs) broke down on election day, much higher than the 801 machines in the 2016 elections.

I, for one, experienced this personally. My ballot was rejected eight times. And the election personnel were plainly clueless as to the proper steps to take when these incidents occur. I was told that since my ballot had been rejected, I can no longer vote. “Wala na po tayong maagawa, (There is no nothing we can do),” one personnel said.

I had to remind them sternly that the voter should not be punished if the machines malfunctioned. I brought my case to the attention of Comelec officials. Some of the officials gave conflicting answers, until it was settled that the proper protocol was to give the voter a new ballot. In fact, I was told the polling centers were provided with extra ballots precisely for this purpose. If that was the case, then why did the Comelec people at the precinct tell me, and others whose ballots were also rejected, that we could no longer vote?

This also begs the question: how many voters were disenfranchised because of this apparent act of ignorance or negligence? There is simply no way to quantify it at the moment.

Also documented were reports of defective SD cards (1,665 out of 85,000 which was 14 times higher than the 2016 figure), “bleeding” marking pens (placed at over a million units), and the seven-hour delay in transmission from the Comelec Transparency Survey to media and poll watchdogs.

Add to to this the suspicious power outage reported in some areas, including Makati’s first district, immediately after the polls closed, when some precincts were already transmitting electronically.

The Comelec must act swiftly and decisively to assure the people that the 2022 elections will be transparent, efficient and fraud-free.

Remember that it is not only the credibility of the Comelec that is under trial. It is the credibility of the election system and the future of our democracy. Comelec must assure the people that their votes are always counted accurately.

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