Congress passed RA 9369 in 2007 calling for automated elections and the Commission on Elections (Comelec) tried the new system in the Autonomous Region of Muslim Mindanao (ARMM) in 2008. Direct-Recording Electronic (DRE) machines using a touch-screen system were used in Maguindanao. Paper-based Optical Scan Machines (OSC) were used in the other ARMM provinces; these were found to be easier to audit.
Thus in the national elections of 2010, paper-based automated elections were held all over the country and the new system was hailed for the swiftness with which the results were announced. Winning local officials were known at the end of election day; national winners were known within a few days.
But the new system was criticized for lack of transparency, for the results were simply spewed out within seconds by machines at the end of the voting day. There was no counting process that the people could witness as before. It is this lack of transparency that has caused some countries, notably Germany and Netherlands, to retain manual elections.
There was another issue raised in Philippine elections. A foreign company, Smartmatic, won the bidding to provide the computerized counting machines. In the digital world, Smartmatic retained a great deal of control over its machines and this was seen by critics as foreign control over Philippine elections. Inevitably, many losing candidates claimed they were cheated and Smartmatic’s machines were blamed.
Last Thursday, President Duterte stepped into the picture. He was meeting with members of the Filipino community in Japan when he said: “I would like to advise Comelec now…. Dispose of that Smartmatic and look for a new one that is free of fraud.” Presidential spokesman Salvador Panelo said the President was responding to concerns raised by many quarters over the technical glitches – including a seven-hour delay in reporting results – on election night last May 13.
There are legal problems, as pointed out by Comelec spokesman James Jimenez, but it is possible to search for a new provider in the next public bidding for succeeding elections. The Comelec has maintained its tie-up with Smartmatic all these years despite repeated attacks, but this time, it is the President speaking out on the issue.
There have been many proposals and suggestions to improve our election system, including combining manual counting in the precincts with automated transmission of results and canvassing in city and centers. This will bring back the intense community interest seen in previous precinct counts. More important, it will provide openly counted precinct numbers that can be checked against the automated totals.
This will not add more than a few hours to the election process but it will add immeasurably to the local community spirit and to the overall confidence of voters and candidates in the final election results. The Comelec can make it happen now that President Duterte has called for a new provider of voting machines with the overall goal of clean elections and a minimum of protests.