The Manila Times - Clean voters’ database: A challenge to a transparent 2022 elections

News & Interviews
3 March 2021

By Nelson Celis | The Manila Times

IN the series of articles “Who cares about supporting transparency to win?” (https://www.manilatimes.net/2020/12/16/opinion/columnists/topanalysis/who-cares-about-supporting-transparency-to-win/811644/), the main highlight was the use of the proposed hybrid election system in the 2022 elections for transparent voting and counting of votes at the precinct level and the electronic transmission of election results as described in the Senate Bill 1950 filed by Senators Sotto, Villar and Marcos.

Corollarily, the conclusion of the Consultative Committee to review the Constitution, which was chaired by retired chief justice Reynato Puno, was also emphasized: “In all elections, the appreciation of ballots and counting of votes by whatever manner shall be accessible and open to the public.”

In this series, the focus of election transparency is on the integrity of the Commission on Elections (Comelec)’s clean voters’ database perspective. It was argued by the election watchdogs (i.e., National Citizens’ Movement for Free Elections, Center for People Empowerment in Governance/AES Watch, etc.) in the recent series of roundtable discussions, that clean and honest elections reside not only in the transparency at the precinct voting and counting, but more so on the inputs to the voting process, which is the pure, non-tampered and non-bloated computerized voters’ list (CVL).

Questions
Let’s reflect on the following questions on how we can attain a very transparent voters’ database: What happened after the hacking of Comelec’s voters’ list (aka ComeLeak) a few weeks before the 2016 elections? Will the Comelec hacking fiasco affect the 2022 elections?

Were control measures implemented to prevent such a disastrous incident? How can Comelec assure the public that the CVL (Section 43, Republic Act (RA) 8189 of 1996 or “The Continuing Voter Registration Act”) is 100-percent clean come the 2022 elections? What about the deceased people that are still in the voters’ list; can they still “vote?” Can an electorate cast his or her vote twice or more? Is the non-passage of the anti-political dynasty bill related to clean voters’ list? Is there any motion from our lawmakers to certify that the Comelec’s CVL is clean before the conduct of 2022 elections?

The Comelec, of course, is doing its best to maintain a clean CVL in its voter’s database while delisting voters who failed to vote for two consecutive elections (Section 27, RA 8189), those who failed to register their biometric data (RA 10367 of 2013 or the “Biometrics Voter Registration” law aka. “No Bio, No Boto” policy), or those who were confirmed to be deceased by local election officers (Section 29, RA 8189). Lately, the 6.3 million voters, who were removed from the voters’ list, were encouraged to go out and register. Other cases of delisting were 2.28 million registrants in 2016 for failing to comply with the biometrics law, in spite of notices, that brought down the voters’ list from 56.95 million to 54.36 million voters, about 1.31 million registrants in 2015 from the voters’ list of 52.34 million electorate (i.e., 879,927 for failing to vote in two consecutive elections and 427,427 deaths), more than 200,000 overseas absentee voters (OAVs) in 2013 who did not vote for two consecutive elections in spite of notices too, etc. A former Comelec chairman commented about ballot printing for OAVs: “Just imagine, we will prepare more than 978,000 ballots, but not all of them will vote!” In Baler, Aurora, an election assistant noted that out of 452 voters purged in 2017, there were 179 dead voters delisted to prevent them from “casting” their vote in the 2019 elections; 162 were found to have registered twice, and 80 had transferred to other places. Hence, delisting does not only lessen the number of ballots to be printed, but it prevents dead people from “voting.”

But does delisting have greater impact in certain political bailiwicks of candidates? In local elections, a close election result could make a big difference for running in local positions. There were cases where the difference was only few votes or even a tie. A case in point was the tie between Sue Cudilla and Noel Beronio with both 3,495 votes tallied in Araceli, Palawan in the 2019 elections. Cudilla defeated the incumbent mayor, Beronio, when the outcome of three consecutive coin tosses favored the former. There was also a tie between Villanueva and Valerio with both 16,694 votes tallied for the mayoral position in Bocaue, Bulacan in the 2016 elections; luck favored Villanueva in a best-of-five-coin flips. Tied electoral races among candidates in barangay (village) elections were also decided by tossing coins. As per Section 240 of Batas Pambansa Bilang 881 or the “Omnibus Election Code,” about election resulting in a tie: “Whenever it shall appear from the canvass that two or more candidates have received an equal and highest number of votes…the board of canvassers…shall proceed to the drawing of lots of the candidates who have tied and shall proclaim as elected the candidates who may be favored by luck…” If unlucky candidates lost through flipping of coins and their supporters were delisted, that would be a double whammy for them!

On the other side of the fence, an election lawyer, who was supporting a candidate in Batangas, invoked Section 46 of RA 8189. She said that their group heard about allegations that deceased voters had not been delisted as their voting slots were being used during elections. The request was granted, and it was found that dead voters were still on the active voters’ list. On the other hand, lawyer Melchor Magdamo, former close adviser to former Supreme Court justice and former Comelec chairman Jose Armando R. Melo, said non-delisting of deceased voters is an incentive for promotion of local election officers though a former Comelec official refuted it by saying that the “practice” was otherwise known as “upgrading.” A former Comelec legal officer even filed a recommendation to the Comelec en banc to break this “practice.”

Further, an article (Go, 2012) cited samples of deceased luminaries found in Comelec’s Precinct Finder on the eve of All Saints’ Day 2012, the likes of Rodolfo “Dolphy” Quizon (died July 10, 2012), former Interior secretary Jesse Robredo (died Aug. 18, 2012), former representative Ignacio “Iggy” Arroyo (died Jan. 26, 2012) etc. After the 2019 elections, on Aug. 2, 2019, the Comelec mused delisting double or multiple registrations and removing deceased voters through proper notification procedures about the deaths and close coordination with the Philippine Statistics Authority. Trivia: would you believe that according to a Comelec insider, some incumbent lawmakers were found to have multiple registrations in the past? The cancellation of registration based on Section 29 of RA 8189 states, “The [Election Registration] Board shall cancel the registration records of those who have died as certified by the Local Civil Registrar. The Local Civil Registrar shall submit each month a certified list of persons who died during the previous month to the Election Officer of the place where the deceased are registered. In the absence of information concerning the place where the deceased is registered, the list shall be sent to the Election Officer of the city or municipality of the deceased’s residence as appearing in his death certificate. In any case, the Local Civil Registrar shall furnish a copy of this list to the national central file and the proper provincial file.” The question is, is this provision of RA 8189 strictly being followed?

Where to start
So, where does the delisting start? It is obvious that it emanates from the registration process in which the captured personal information of voters is stored in the Comelec’s voters’ database. A study “Civil and Voter Registries: Lessons Learned from Global Experiences,” edited by Michael Yard (2011) with former Comelec Information Technology director, Ernie del Rosario, as a collaborating author, focused on the case study about the Philippines and detailed the efforts to improve the voter registration system to a long history of election cheating through the implementation of a Voter Verification System in 2003 in tandem with an Automated Fingerprint Identification System (AFIS) in 2009 to attain the following objectives: ferret out double, multiple and spurious entries in the CVL; assign voters in permanent precincts according to their voting addresses or residence; provide a system of regular cleaning and updating of the CVLs and project of precincts; prevent disenfranchisement and voter-substitution on election day; and reengineer processes that will make Comelec’s organizational structure more attuned to a modernized electoral system.

Based on the study, the Comelec’s voter database is built from the actual ‘live” capturing of voter information from the ground, and it is not extracted from any other registries such as Philippine Statistics Authority, Government Service Insurance Service, Philippine Health Insurance Corp., Department of Foreign Affairs, Bureau of Internal Revenue and Land Transportation Office. During the project rollout, several constraints were encountered; one of which was the non-surrender of the source code by the supplier – looks like a similar issue in the past elections.

On how the polling sites during elections are planned at the central level through ad hoc querying or reports, the study explained, “A regular function of the system is producing a voter list to expedite polling site processes on election day and for the purpose of generating proof of right to vote. The two types of lists generated are: the Posted Computerized Voters’ List (PCVL) and the Election Day Computerized Voters’ List (EDCVL). The PCVL is the preliminary listing created for verification by the election offices from which a final listing, the EDCVL, is generated. The EDCVL identifies who has or has not voted since these lists are grouped by precinct and are signed and thumbmarked by each voter after voting. This makes it easy to verify who has and has not voted. Voter registry information is made available to political parties and candidates at a minimal fee to cover supplies costs.

To improve transparency, lists are periodically provided to the public with consideration of voter privacy. Additionally, these lists are available upon formal request for a minimal fee to recover supplies costs.

Such information is not normally provided for non-electoral purposes unless there is a court order. The policy is that voter data will be provided in only two types of situations: 1) when the owner of the information is the one requesting it; and 2) when there is a court order.”

The study stressed that “until all biometric data are captured and the entire database is cleansed, the desired transparency will not be achieved.” It concluded that “the prevailing candidate’s and his supporters’ attitude that ‘an elected position is something worth dying (and even cheating) for’ dictates the use of a technology that can effectively bar such shenanigans at the voter list level… A proof-of-concept AFIS pilot conducted in 2003 in one region, [the Autonomous Region of Muslim Mindanao,] resulted in the discovery of a 7.5 percent bloat in the voters’ list…If extrapolated to a national scale, this translates to enough fraudulent votes to possibly elect a president in a tightly contested election.”

In “Policy Report: Review of the Legal and Institutional Framework on the holding of the 2022 Parliamentary Elections in the BARMM (Bangsamoro Autonomous Region of Muslim Mindanao)” by former Comelec commissioner Luie Guia (July 2020), he stated, “Moreover, many put on issue [of] the integrity of the voters’ list in the [BARMM] region on many occasions. It was [unsurprising] that policymakers had twice sought the nullification of [the] voters’ list and the holding of general registration of voters. The annulment of the voters’ list was done despite the introduction of biometrics technology and the Automated Fingerprint Identification System.” In a footnote, AFIS is described: “The AFIS process involves matching biometrics data, obtained from voters (fingerprints) with those of the entire voter population in the country. The aim is to rid the list of multiple registration of the same persons. Theoretically, therefore, the problem of the supposed bloated lists of voters could have been answered by applying AFIS matching and ordering the delisting of those whose names appear in more than one list. The challenge, however, is that the data available in the records of the election offices is so inadequate and the list is so bloated that the assessment was that starting from the beginning is the best and only way to solve the problem.”

(To be continued)