By Ricardo Saludo | The Manila Times
In all four automated national elections since 2010, grave doubts and questions arose in VCM use and canvassing, which even tech-savvy experts cannot conclusively dispel and answer.
Meanwhile, Filipinos can only take on blind faith that the results truly reflect the will of the electorate. The crux of the democratic process — the counting of each citizen’s vote — is no longer visible and understandable for most of us.
In election after election, we are just told by the Commission on Elections to trust that the Comelec is doing its duty, even if we can’t see the very counting of our choices. And in the many wholesale anomalies plaguing automated polls, the final arbiter of election integrity was none other than the very entity accused of irregularity. This must stop.
Another election, another glitch
In 2010, digital signatures and other safeguards mandated by law were dispensed with, and tens of thousands of computer memory cards were replaced wholesale, making many wonder if the counting software was compromised.
Then some 60 VCMs were inexplicably found in Antipolo, creating suspicions of unauthorized canvassing transmissions. That fear grew when the initial vote count from transmitted results topped 200 million — more than four times the number of registered voters.
Come 2013, an Ateneo professor found a pattern in election results, which consistently gave the administration slate 60 percent of the senatorial votes, the opposition 30 percent, and independents 10 percent. This pattern appeared across different regions, provinces and cities even where local opposition strength should have tipped the votes against the administration coalition led by the Liberal Party (LP).
And in the last presidential elections in 2016, fears of automated vote-rigging erupted when Venezuela-based VCM provider Smartmatic made changes in the counting software without the legally required authorization from the Comelec.
Purportedly, the election-night code tweak was meant to correct the misspelling of names with the letter “ñ”, which had been appearing as a question mark before the supposed correction. But skeptical experts warned that even a seemingly innocent program alteration could trigger a cheating process designed to be activated that way.
Confirming this fear in the minds of many Smartmatic critics was the protest filed by vice presidential candidate Bongbong Marcos, who lost to the LP’s Leni Robredo.
The much-delayed election protest claimed that after the canvassing program change, the spoilage or undervoting of ballots, which is usually 1 to 3 percent, trebled to double-digits in precincts where Robredo won, but remained tiny where Marcos led.
The suspicion then is that votes for Marcos were considered spoiled by VCMs. The suspect results, the protest alleged, enabled Robredo to overhaul Marcos’ million-vote lead on election night, surging some 200,000 votes ahead the morning after.
Now, in last week’s polls, the latest foul-up is the malfunction and replacement of at least 600 vote-counting machines — four times the breakdowns in 2016.
While these are just a fraction of the 85,000 machines deployed, the last-minute switch, like the wholesale memory card swap in 2010, cannot but raise questions about possible tampering and fraud.
In all these controversies, expert advocates and critics of the VCM system have endlessly debated in public and in Congress. And most of us are unable to join this crucial discussion about our democracy, for lack of expertise.
We must see our votes counted
This inability for ordinary people to figure out and affirm the veracity of automated vote counts led the Supreme Court of Germany, one of the most technologically advanced nations, to ban VCMs in 2009. German justices ruled that the citizenry must be able to see and verify the count without special expertise.
To ensure the same transparency and access to vote-counting for Filipinos, computer expert and former Comelec commissioner Augusto Lagman has long proposed a hybrid system combining manual counting vetted by voters and poll watchers, with electronic transmission and online posting of election returns (ERs).
While manual vote counting would extend canvassing a day or so, it would give ordinary Filipinos direct control, access and transparency in vote tabulation. Then citizens can probe every ballot and vote, and ensure that the counting is correct, instead of hoping that VCMs are doing it right.
What about fraud? Won’t manual counting lead to more cheating?
In fact, 90 percent of vote-rigging happens not in precinct-level counting, but at city and provincial level canvassing of ERs, where dishonest election canvassers perpetrate vote-shaving, or “dagdag-bawas,” adding or subtracting votes by the tens or hundreds just by manipulating the compilation of precinct results.
With the hybrid system, voters can witness, protect, and validate the precinct count. Then verified and signed ERs would be scanned and posted online, for all to see and use in checking results sent to and compiled by city, provincial and national boards of canvassers. Discrepancies can be spotted simply by checking against returns online, and any well-staffed and -equipped group can compile its own tallies simply by totaling ER results open to all.
Why didn’t Congress and Comelec go for the hybrid system, which would also cost far less than the tens of billions of pesos spent on the Smartmatic system? The common answer is that VCMs are less prone to human error, and much quicker and easier for precinct tabulators.
Yet, repeated VCM problems show that automated counting can be manipulated, with the public none the wiser. Thus, automation may simply make fraud quicker and easier.
Indeed, that may well be the real reason Comelec keeps using Smartmatic. Not only is the system cost so much more lucrative for those seeking commissions, election fraud would be easier to do, but harder to spot and prove.
Before the next polls, we must reinstate citizen control and validation of vote counting by manual precinct tallies, while fighting fraud through electronic and online posting of ERs. With this hybrid system, our next crop of leaders, if not our future constitution, would truly be our democratic choice.