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The Manila Times - Shades of an electoral fraud

News & Interviews
22 January 2019

By Antonio P. Contreras | The Manila Times

ONCE again, the Commission on Elections (Comelec) has reminded voters to fully shade the ovals in the ballots in the upcoming May elections. This is the same Comelec that behind our backs, and unknown to the candidates and the parties, except perhaps to those who had sinister plans to use the information to their advantage, changed the minimum shading thresholds which the vote counting machines (VCMs) would count as valid votes in the 2016 elections from 50 percent, which was earlier published under their rules, to 25 percent, which was only publicly revealed when the protest of former senator Bongbong Marcos was already in progress. In fact, according to information revealed by former Comelec chair Sixto Brillantes Jr., the same was done for the 2013 elections, where it was lowered even further to 20 percent, again unknown to the voting public and the contesting parties. Hence, Comelec appeared to have duped us into believing that we needed to shade the ballots fully, but eventually, and like a thief in the night, surreptitiously changed the voting threshold not just once, but twice.

And now, they are once again asking us to fully shade the ballot ovals, even if the VCMs will read even small dot-like marks. As the saying goes: fool us once, shame on you; fool us twice, shame on us. And now the Comelec wants to fool us again for the third time.

It is normal for automated voting to have minimum thresholds, considering that some voters may not be able to fully shade the ballot ovals. This is to avoid disenfranchising voters who may have inadvertently failed to shade the ovals as instructed. However, this has to be publicly disclosed to advise voters the allowable range, below which they will have to suffer the consequence of their votes not being counted. And this is precisely why in the 2010 elections, when we had our first experience with automated elections conducted at the national level, the published rules clearly indicated that ballots marked below 50 percent would not be counted as valid. Bombarded with an information and education campaign, for which millions of tax payers’ monies were spent, asking voters to fully shade ballots, a minimum threshold of 50 percent was already a fair allowance to ensure against accidental voter disenfranchisement.

It is therefore odd that the Comelec decided to lower the threshold further to 20 percent in the 2013 mid-term elections, and to 25 percent in the 2016 presidential elections. For them to have done these without properly amending the election rules through a numbered resolution, and conducting public consultations on the issue, and worse, not causing its wide publication to the voters, candidates and political parties, amounted to a betrayal of public trust. And it is even worse that the Supreme Court, sitting as the Presidential Electoral Tribunal (PET), eventually allowed them to get away with it in the 2016 elections.

And indeed, the change in the voting thresholds could have a significant effect on the vote count.

This is nowhere more clearly illustrated than in the results of the vote recount in Iloilo which the lawyers of the camp of Vice President Leni Robredo proudly announced, in violation of the gag order issued by the PET, and which was published by the Manila Bulletin. Had the legally published threshold of 50 percent been used, Robredo would have lost 11,016 votes in Iloilo province, while Marcos only lost 1,204 votes. However, and which I quote directly from the same Manila Bulletin article, “The lawyers noted that Robredo benefited from the September 2018 ruling of the PET that upheld the 25-percent shading threshold in counting votes.” And the lawyers being referred to are no other than the lawyers of Robredo.

Indeed, Robredo benefited from the change in the threshold. In using a 25 percent threshold, Robredo lost only 14 votes, while Marcos lost 22 votes. Consequently, an analysis of the numbers reported by the Bulletin, as revealed to them by lawyers of Robredo in violation of the PET directive, will reveal that applying the 50 percent threshold would have enabled Marcos to close the margin of Robredo by 9,812 votes. But when the 25 percent threshold was applied, Robredo even widened her lead by an additional eight-vote margin.

We should recall the argument of the Robredo camp when they urged the PET to adopt the 25 percent threshold and reconsider its earlier ruling favoring the 50 percent threshold. Robredo argued that using the 50 percent threshold would unfairly disenfranchise her voters. It therefore behooves us to ask how Robredo could have known that applying the 50 percent minimum threshold would significantly reduce her total number of votes of 120,869 in 11 towns in Iloilo province by about 8 percent. This would have been bad news for Robredo since this level of reduction could have been substantial enough to convince the PET to proceed with a broader recount, considering that her lead over Marcos in the national count was no more than 2 percent of her total number of votes.

One just needs to conduct an analysis of the automated election system to know that having prior information of the actual lower minimum shading threshold that is not publicly disclosed could potentially arm a candidate or an election operator with enormous power to manufacture votes and thereby manipulate the election results. This can be done by pre-shading the ballots in a way that would pass the new and lower threshold. By applying simple game theory analogy, the other party and the authentic voters would not have this information, and with Comelec engaged in a frenzied information and education campaign convincing voters to fully shade their ovals, the normal behavior of authentic voters would most likely comply with the higher threshold. It is only one with prior knowledge about the changed voting threshold who can take advantage of the information. This can then be fed into a well-organized pre-shading operation to manufacture a certain number of fake votes.

While this is not saying that this is what certainly happened in the 2016 vice-presidential race, it is interesting to note that in Iloilo province, only 1,204 Marcos voters violated the 50 percent rule, while 11,016 voters of Robredo failed to shade their ballots in accordance with that rule.

It is now just a matter of using the pre-shaded ballots in lieu of the real ballots, or of placing them in the ballot boxes after the fact to match the tally that would have been altered by other means. What is clear is that the success of this operation now rests on a well-coordinated and systematic conspiracy, that could in fact involve a whole range of participants, and actions, from that of the lowly pre-shader working overnight in some secret location, to that of changing the minimum shading threshold of ballot ovals without informing the public, and disclosing this only to a preferred candidate.

This may be a hypothetical scenario, but it is certainly also a plausible one, one that we should be wary of in the coming May elections. We should not allow the shades of the 2016 elections to haunt us and make fools of us thrice, for that would certainly be a shame for the entire nation.

Meanwhile, the scenario described here should be an angle which the PET should seriously consider in the electoral protest of Bongbong Marcos against Leni Robredo.