The Manila Times - Toward an alternative AES: The next moves

7 August 2019

By Lito Averia | The Manila Times

IT has been three months since the last national and local elections and everything seems to have quieted down.

The last major activity held about three weeks ago was the Automated Election System (AES) Technology Fair hurriedly organized by the Department of Information and Communications Technology (DICT), which chairs the Commission on Elections Advisory Council (CAC). The DICT was spurred into action after President Rodrigo Duterte asked the Comelec, in a speech delivered in Tokyo, Japan, to look for an alternative AES that is fraud-free.

The DICT gathered advocates of clean and credible elections with ideas and concepts of election technologies as well as AES vendors. Each group was given the opportunity to pitch their respective AES technology solutions. Smartmatic was not to be left out of the event, prompting some to ask why the much-criticized AES technology supplier was there. The DICT itself presented a prototype of an AES using lotto-style ballots.

The AES Technology Fair was meant to provide advocates of clean and credible election and election technology proponents an opportunity to review the available technology solutions and technology concepts presented and from there to hopefully select a desired alternative.

Nothing more has been said after the event. There was no discussion of what the next moves are. Everyone was simply eager to go home or go back to the office.

So, what comes next?

The election cycle is a short three years. Automating the elections on a national scale, as the Comelec experience has shown, will require more than a year to implement. Procurement starts much earlier, perhaps by a year before the start of implementation. A decision on the alternative AES must be made soon.

One of the hurdles that must be overcome is amending Republic Act 8436 — or RA 8436 as amended by RA 9369 — the law that authorized the Comelec to use an automated election system for electoral exercises.

Some critics have been calling for a return to manual elections. One thing is clear, however: a return to a full manual system would be a challenge. But calls for hybrid elections where voting and vote counting will be done manually, the transmission of election results from the precinct level done electronically, and the canvassing and consolidation of votes automated have been gaining ground among lawmakers.

Senate Bill (SB) 7, or the “Hybrid Election Act,” has been filed by Sen. Vicente Sotto 3rd. A counterpart bill has yet to be filed at the House of Representatives.

The Senate committee on election reforms and people participation is set to conduct a hearing on August 7 to discuss, among other things, SB 7.

SB 7 provides for voting to be done manually with the voter writing the name or names of the candidates of his choice per contest or position on blank spaces provided in the ballot, except in the case of “illiterate and especially abled voters” where the proposed law provides that “The Commission should use or adopt the latest technological and electronic devices in connection therewith (the use of a different form of official ballot) as to enable such illiterate or especially abled voter to confirm that the accompanying person truly adhered to the voter’s choice of candidates x x x”.

SB 7 also provides for the counting of votes to be done manually, with the poll clerk recording the votes on the election returns while an independent technician records the votes into a “digital spreadsheet, which shall serve as the Digital Election Return” as the votes are being read by the chairman of the board of election inspectors (now referred to as the electoral board).

The proposed bill prescribes that “x x x the board shall again enter their respective digital signatures to write-protect the memory card containing the digital election return and the image of the manual election return, and authorize the electronic transmission of the results to the various secure servers x x x”.

“Digital signature” as referred to in the proposed bill is not defined. Knowledgeable information technology practitioners who are advocating for clean and credible elections will surely push that “digital signature” be defined and implemented accordingly. If not, the Comelec will rely on the Supreme Court decision on Archbishop Capalla et al. v. Comelec (G.R. 201112) in which the court upheld the validity of i-buttons holding passwords issued to the members of the board of election inspectors for use as digital signing instruments instead of each member generating his/her respective personal public-private key pair and using the same for the purpose of digitally signing the election returns. The court did not disturb that decision in its recent ruling on Bagumbayan-VNP Movement, Inc., et al. v. Comelec (G.R. 206719).

SB 7 does not supplant RA 8436 as amended by RA 9369 which means that, even if the proposed bill becomes law and there is limited time to prepare for the national and local elections in 2022 using the hybrid system as described, the Comelec may opt to continue using the AES technology used previously.

Without amending RA 8436 as amended by RA 9369, the Comelec may also argue that using a laptop programmed for the purpose of generating the digital election returns requires that the software must have been used in a prior electoral exercise as provided by that law.