The Manila Times – First things first: Start with a clean slate

By Nelson Celis | The Manila Times

THE three-year period before the 2022 elections is just quite a short time to do a proper project management of a complex automated election system (AES), especially if irregularities have been cropping up every now and then. Learning from the past four automated national and local elections and one ARMM election in 2008, such irregularities should be resolved first before planning for the 2022 presidential elections. All stakeholders, the joint congressional oversight committee (JCOC) on AES, the Commission on Elections (Comelec), citizen’s arms, political parties, watchdogs, DICT, DOST, and subject matter experts, must agree on the common mindset on how the next elections should be conducted.

It is unfortunate that the provisions of the AES Law, or Republic Act (RA) 9369, were not complied with. Its execution was marred by technological irregularities that include those investigated by the newly created technical working group (TWG) of the JCOC early this year and those cited by the AES Watch in their system transparency accountability and readiness scorecard (https://www.manilatimes.net/2019-elections-assessment-worst/558175/). The good news, however, was the effective handling of the investigation by the TWG concerning the irregularities cited by Sen. Tito Sotto in two privilege speeches he gave in March 2018. Even given a very short period of time, the TWG came out with remarkable findings based on the audit logs provided by the Comelec in just two hearings before the May 13 elections.

This TWG intervention is worth applauding and could be considered as the best contribution of the JCOC since 2008 as it made complicated issues between stakeholders easy to understand. As one may have observed in the hearings, all stakeholders in attendance were given ample time to present their views. Subject matter experts were heard. After exhaustive deliberations, a conclusion was derived without any hesitations or reservations from the attendees. Ideal as it may seem, this is the kind of environment that we should experience in settling all past issues before the actual planning for the 2022 elections.

The TWG’s role in investigating may even be further expanded by providing workable solutions to an issue or by coming up with steps on how to mitigate possible risk. An example could be the strategy on how to prevent early transmissions as what had happened before the 2016 elections. Though the reply of Comelec during the JCOC hearing that the early transmissions were not intentional, the TWG’s possible mitigation measure is for all the transmission facilities to be activated only when needed. Hence, there wouldn’t be early transmissions at all!

As to the presence of the queuing servers at the “meet me room,” Comelec should have recommended its use first with the stakeholders. Had there been a TWG handling this concern, it would have conferred in a hearing and discussed why would there be a need for it vis-à-vis the provisions of the AES Law or in the absence of the implementing rules and regulations. It might have been possible for all parties concerned to have agreed with the queuing servers.

What about the real digital signatures as stipulated in Section 30 of RA 9369 — Authentication of electronically transmitted election results by appropriate authentication and certification procedures for electronic signatures as provided in RA 8792 or the e-Commerce Law of 2000, as well as the rules promulgated by the Supreme Court (i.e., rules on electronic evidence)? To Comelec, digital signing is enough with i-button. Nevertheless, the TWG heard the explanation of the subject matter experts extensively in their two hearings saying that digital signing is generated through the process of a certificate authority and not by i-button. Besides, the DICT, formerly the Information & Communications Technology Office under DoST, started offering digital signing services in 2013. That means the DICT understands what digital signing is as they have IT and communications experts. Had there been a TWG deliberation on this matter a long time ago, misunderstandings between stakeholders could have been resolved quickly.

Therefore, the key to the transparent conduct of presidential elections in 2022 could be facilitated by the TWG. being the overall coordinating body of the stakeholders. A complex IT project like AES implementation needs a pro-active team like the TWG that would act as the management team to resolve countless bugging issues and questions raised repeatedly in so many JCOC hearings. One could compare the TWG’s role in any highly organized private business entity or government agency run by a well-meaning management committee or team that regularly meets in discussing action plans, problem resolutions, innovations, risk mitigation measures, compliance strategies and other organizational concerns.

Since the TWG reports to the JCOC, the TWG symbolizes the chief operating officer or COO while the JCOC as the chief executive officer or CEO. So what could be the first challenge to the TWG when it convenes the stakeholders — how do we implement an election system that could count in a transparent manner? Will that system be compliant with RA 9369? If not, should the AES Law be amended? Or shall we implement a locally developed system best for Filipinos?

To top it all, there’s an expression “better late than never” — which means doing something later than expected isn’t good but it is better than not at all. With TWG, there’s still hope!

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