The Manila Times - Hybrid or not

26 January 2021

By Ma. Lourdes Tiquia | The Manila Times

WE are nine months away from the filing of certificates of candidacy, and there is still no consensus on the system we will be using for Election Day 2022 and how the Commission on Elections (Comelec) is to manage the elections with the Covid pandemic. As is true of the way in which Comelec moves, during the three off-election years, the agency seems to have been hibernating instead of using the time to build and pursue a time-centric program to prepare for the next election cycle.

Risks have often been associated with elections and risk management has seemed not to be one of the core strengths of Comelec from the start. Problems appear to be constant and certain across election cycles since we adopted the automated election system (AES) in 2010. The weaknesses of the system are almost predetermined, but no solutions have been made and these become problematic for everyone involved in elections. As has been pointed out time and time again, there are no implementing rules and regulations on the AES Law (Republic Act 8436, as amended by Republic Act 9369), and worse, no audit has been done on the AES from 2010 to 2019; hence, knee-jerk reactions every election without settling old issues. These issues boil down to transparency and accountability of the system that has run our elections since 2010.

In the May 2019 midterm elections, the total registered voters were 61,843,771 with 22,083,529 young voters or 35.7 percent. The Comelec earlier said it expected to have 4 million to 7 million registrants. Previous to the cancellation of the general registration, a total of 863,309 applications were received from Sept. 1, 2019 to Dec. 11, 2019. Per Comelec, the top three regions with a high number of registrations were Calabarzon (Cavite, Laguna, Batangas, Rizal and Quezon) with the the number of applicants at 129,653, followed by Central Luzon with 97,455 and the National Capital Region with 84,497.

The call for a hybrid system is being made after four election cycles, but the 18th Congress has not made this a priority to allow Comelec to have time to roll it out efficiently. There are six legislative measures in the House of Representatives and three in the Senate with Committee Report No. 141, and there is no agreement on how to fast-track, audit the system, do time-and-motion studies, and plan for it. The calls for a hybrid system are due to “vote-counting irregularities that occurred since the AES was used [such as] the early transmission of votes, foreign access [of] election servers, installation of an additional device known as a ‘queuing server’ in the middle of the transmission process, script change in the middle of the live transmission of results and incomplete transmissions of results,” among others. In a closely contested election, a discrepancy of at least 2 percent between vote tallies done manually and transmitted electronically calls for an automatic recount to be done for the position in question.

There are about four million absentee voters and the Department of Foreign Affairs and the Comelec have not made any decision on online or internet voting. Still, there is a need for congressional action on the use of online voting, and that has to be made this quarter and tested for a stability.

And the Comelec has no clear-cut plan yet about Election Day (E-day). There is talk of adding more days (additional 2 to 3 days), more hours (12 hours) and more precincts (to ensure health protocols) as protocols for E-day. Although early voting for senior citizens and persons with disability are already given, the details on the ground plan have not been defined. Government and media are allowed to do early voting, but the nuances under Covid are unclear. Even mail-in-voting has not been studied to cancel it as among the options for voting. The default logic is that the Post Office cannot do it because of its inherent problems.

Operationally, the timeline for filing certificates of candidacy must be studied to move it from mid-October to the December 15 date, preceding an election. This change would limit the substitution of candidates to only cases of death and disqualification and not disrupt the timeline for timely printing and distribution of ballots to all precincts. The printing should no longer be outsourced but confined to the National Printing Office. With all technologies, a bar code or a QR code can be affixed to ballots, which can be monitored in the shipment and scanned in situ.

Why should the hybrid proposal be supported? Because manual voting and counting at the precinct level can be performed publicly, the voter manually enters his/her votes on ballot paper, and the counting is publicly seen by the board of election inspectors and watchers, represented by different groups in the precinct. The bias is to have counting be computer-aided to enhance the process. After the counting, the election returns would be computer-generated before these are electronically transmitted for consolidation and canvassing at the municipal level. The “errors” of the past had to do with the use of the Data Center and the Bank Up Data Center and the glitches that happened, which were not explained adequately and were brushed off as still being accurate.

With the results of the US elections , which used the Dominion voting system, still reverberating globally, all the more should elections administrators invest in building their own platforms. Years ago, we advocated for a platform. based on the automated teller machine and, later, developed one using cell phones since the penetration of cellphone use is already at 110 percent. As the national government rolls out the national identification card, Juan de la Cruz will already have a unique number, and that is the first step towards building an election system of the future. The next step is to make mandatory the registration of SIM cards. This would ensure the success of a campaign against fraudsters as well as build a robust election system for the country. We are not lacking creative juices in the field of programming and design thinking. We just need political will from among our leaders to get our systems agreed upon and, ultimately, built.

Let us not cheapen the process of elections. Let us not game it to be a proposition of “what are we in power for.” Instead, let us put together our collective will to change what needs to be changed and promote what is good for the body politic because Filipinos can design and run elections better than any foreign voting system that, by and of itself, is an interference in the basic tenets of our democracy. We know better what we need, and in the end, we should be able to do what is needed in our elections and democracy.