By Alex Magno | The Philippine Star
Recounting the votes is a tedious and expensive process. But sometimes it just has to be done not only to establish who actually won a contest but to more carefully examine the reliability of the electronic system we use.
The outcome of the 2016 elections for vice-president continues to be a contested one. The misfortune of a seven-hour blackout in reporting the results adds to suspicions the electronic system might have been rigged to favor one party.
Before the data outage happened, with 63.6% of precincts tallied, vice-presidential candidate Ferdinand R. Marcos Jr. was leading rival Leonor Robredo by over a million votes. When the glitch was solved, and with returns from 23.7% of precincts tallied, Robredo emerged the winner.
That, understandably, produced an outcry. Some claimed an electronic “miracle” happened.
Robredo won over Marcos by the slimmest of margins: 263,473 votes. That represented only 0.58% – or just over half of a percentage point – of total votes cast for vice-president.
Marcos’ lawyers immediately moved to block Robredo’s proclamation. A Smartmatic technician admitted that transmission of poll results was made to pass through a queue server rather than reported directly to the Consolidation and Canvassing System (CCS) as prescribed by the automated elections law. That is where the congestion and subsequent blackout happened.
On this basis, Marcos’ lawyers sought to prevent Robredo’s proclamation until the integrity of the reported numbers has been checked. They lost that effort.
Marcos filed a protest with the Presidential Electoral Tribunal (PET) on June 29, 2016 challenging Robredo’s proclamation. Associate Justice Benjamin Caguioa, a Noynoy Aquino appointee to the High Court, chairs the PET.
As the protest dragged on, Marcos’ allies saw signs of what appeared to be partiality on the part of Justice Caguioa.
The most significant sign involved Caguioa’s ruling that ballots with less than 50% shading of the space that is supposed to be fully shaded ought to be considered in the recount. For some reason, Robredo’s lawyers argued that even the scantily shaded ballots be considered in the recount. For some reason, again, it is the Robredo voters who seem chronically incapable of fully shading the oval indicating candidate choice.
Any day now, the PET is expected to issue a ruling on whether the recount demanded by Marcos should continue on the basis of the results of the recount in three provinces.
Strangely, Robredo supporters have materialized in front of the Supreme Court demanding that the justices dismiss the complaint. They are stepping ahead of the facts of the case.
The Marcos protest asked for a recount in 22 provinces and five highly urbanized cities. This is where, his lawyers argue, the possibility of electoral fraud is high, given evidence of “pre-shaded ballots, pre-loaded SD cards, misreading of ballots and the unexplained, irregular and improper rejection of ballots with pro-Marcos votes…”
The recount proceeded in three “pilot” provinces: Camarines Sur, Iloilo and Negros Oriental. The manual recount in these three provinces was completed recently.
It was not an uneventful recount, however. The Comelec could not provide decrypted ballot images from 69 clustered precincts. These precincts were from 18 municipalities and cities from Camarines Sur, Robredo’s bailiwick coincidentally.
The explanation offered by the Comelec was that the Board of Electoral Inspectors mistakenly used the “rezero” command before shutting down the VCMs. This command deleted all the files in the secure digital (SD) cards. It is a mistake unique to the electoral officers of Camarines Sur.
At any rate, the manual recount in the three “pilot” provinces did not match the electronic tallies. According to a reliable source, Marcos lost 1,500 votes in the manual recount. Robredo lost 16,000 votes – although she recovered some votes through the application of the minimal shading rule adopted by the PET. Justice Caguioa ruled that 25% shading was sufficient to count the vote in a candidate’s favor.
With the razor-thin lead in the official count that is the basis of Robredo’s proclamation as vice-president, every vote counts.
The mob that turned up in front of the Supreme Court demanded that the PET dismiss Marcos’ protest. That would, of course, leave Robredo’s occupancy of the post of vice-president unchallenged.
It is entirely possible that the PET might rule to dismiss the Marcos electoral protest outright and put an end to this long-running ordeal of manually recounting millions of votes. But that might not serve the ends of justice in this case.
In addition to the three “pilot” provinces chosen to kick off the recount, Marcos’ lawyers allege that the votes in three other provinces be examined given the evidence of gross irregularities. These provinces that supplied Robredo her “winning” margin are: Maguindanao, Basilan and Lanao del Sur.
These three provinces are familiar to all who have tracked Filipino electoral history. They are notorious for electoral fraud. In the case of the 2016 elections, Marcos’ lawyers claim that hardly any actual voting was held in these areas.
The Marcos camp is seeking the annulment of poll results in 422 protested clustered precincts in Basilan, 1,251 clustered precincts in Lanao del Sur and 1,083 clustered precincts in Maguindanao. Should these protested results be annulled, Marcos will gain 308,825 against Robredo, handily winning the contest.
But Justice Caguioa might have other plans. He might render this demand for annulment of precinct results academic by dismissing the Marcos complaint entirely.
Should this happen, the validity of Robredo’s occupation of the vice-presidency will remain unsettled and we will miss an opportunity to review the vulnerabilities of the automated counting system.