The Manila Times – Digital signature and the automated election system

By Lito Averia | The Manila Times

SIGNING is a free and voluntary act of a natural person to demonstrate his agreement with the contents of a document or to attest to the truthfulness of certain facts written in a document or to freely signify that he witnessed another person sign a document or other events.

One of the requirements that an automated election system must have is the capacity for the members of the board of election inspectors, renamed electoral board, to digitally sign the election returns generated by the vote counting machine and members of the board of canvassers to affix their digital signatures on the certificates of canvass generated by the canvassing and consolidation system (CCS).

Section 18 of the Election Automation Law, Republic Act or RA 8436, amended by RA 9369, provides: “The election returns transmitted electronically and digitally signed shall be considered as official election results and shall be used as the basis for the canvassing of votes and the proclamation of a candidate.”

While Section 21 of the same law provides: “The certificates of canvass transmitted electronically and digitally signed shall be considered as official election results and shall be used as the basis for the proclamation of a winning candidate.”

Following the elections of 2010, the then Commission on Elections (Comelec) Executive Director Jose Tolentino Jr. told the House of Representatives Committee on Suffrage and Electoral Reform that the machine digital signature was implemented since the above-quoted provisions of law did not specifically identify who will digitally sign the election documents. The same machine digital signature was implemented in the three subsequent national and local elections.

How can it be said that the PCOS/VCM — precinct count optical scan/vote counting machines — acted freely and voluntarily to digitally sign the election returns and the CCS acted freely and voluntarily to digitally sign the certificates of canvass? Can it be said that the PCOS/VCM and CCS have free will?

By no stretch of the imagination, even if the PCOS/VCM and CCS have been programmed with artificial intelligence, can it be said that the machines have free will to digitally sign those documents.

The Automated Election Law is an amendatory law that amended certain provisions of the Omnibus Election Code, or Batas Pambansa Bilang 881 (BP 881). BP 881 requires that the election returns be signed by the members of the board of election inspectors and the certificate of canvass be signed by the members of the board of canvassers. Nothing in the amendatory law, RA 8436 as amended, changed the expressed requirement of BP 881. The election returns generated by the PCOS, rebranded into VCM in the 2016 elections, should have been digitally signed by the members of the board of election inspectors while the certificates of canvass generated by the CCS should have been digitally signed by the members of the board of canvassers.

It is important that the election returns and certificates of canvass be digitally signed by natural persons and electronically transmitted for the election results to be considered official and used for the proclamation of winning candidates, the Automated Election Law provides.

What is a digital signature?

A digital signature is a type of electronic signature defined in RA 8792, or the “Electronic Commerce Act of 2000,” which uses a pair of keys (public and private keys) associated with a natural person or signatory. A digital signature, once affixed to an electronic document, establishes a link between the digitally signed electronic document and the signatory. A digitally signed electronic document cannot be repudiated by the signatory and any changes made after signing can be detected. The terms digital signature and electronic signature are oftentimes used interchangeably. A digital signature is a type of electronic signature, but not all electronic signatures are digital signatures. An electronic signature is any mark, symbol, sound, or process or a digital signature that can be used to identify the signer. A digital signature is an output of a process which accepts a person’s private key as input together with the electronic document to be signed. The digital signature is then appended to the electronic document. One feature of a digital signature is that the digital signature may be used to identify the signer.

Implementing digital signing with the automated election system will ensure the integrity of the election results. In case of dispute, the members of the board of election inspectors or board of canvassers may be identified and asked to provide testimony regarding an electoral protest. The PCOS/VCM or CCS cannot act as a witness to an electoral protest.

A public key infrastructure (PKI) enables digital signing. The predecessor agencies of the Department of Information and Communications Technology have long been in the forefront of implementing digital signing through the PKI.

The Covid-19 pandemic has accelerated the adoption of technologies for government agencies and businesses to continue operating and deliver necessary services. One of these technologies is the digital signing technology. The DICT is actively pursuing the adoption of digital signing. Heads of government agencies and some employees or staff have been enrolled in the PKI. The PKI is now operational and may be used with any automated election system that the Comelec will implement for use in our national and local elections.

It is time that digital signing be implemented correctly.

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