The Manila Times - Unveiling the myths about PH automated elections

27 November 2019

By Nelson Celis | The Manila Times

LAUNCHED in April 2013, the book published by the Center for People Empowerment (CenPEG) titled, Was Your Vote Counted? Unveiling the Myths about Philippine Automated Elections, is a valuable contribution to understanding the questions and complexities about poll automation, which had its first nationwide implementation in 2010. In this book, edited by Professor Bobby M. Tuazon, the technical issues or non-compliances with Republic Act 9369 or the “Automated Election System Law” (AES Law), are vividly explained by the 19 authors. Guess what, those issues were also experienced in the last three national elections in 2013 to 2019; that means, for almost a decade now, nothing has changed! Will it be the same in 2022?

By the way, the CenPEG is the think tank of AES Watch and it coordinates with almost 50 convener organizations and individual members advocating for clean, honest, secure and transparent elections.

To mitigate the risks posed by these issues in 2022, CenPEG/AES Watch recommended just one strategy to Sen. Imee Marcos, chairman of the Senate Committee on Electoral Reforms and People’s Participation (Cerpp) — settle all the issues mentioned in the book. Aside from Cerpp, it is noteworthy to recognize the critical function of the Joint Congressional Oversight Committee (JCOC) on AES as stipulated in RA 9369, Section 33: “An oversight committee is hereby created…to monitor and evaluate the implementation of this Act. A written report to the Senate and the House of Representatives shall be submitted by the Advisory Council within six months from the date of election…” By law, it only means that the JCOC-AES should already start deliberating on the report of the Comelec Advisory Council this November and recommend to the Congress in session about the best technology for the 2022 elections. Nevertheless, the recommendation of President Duterte is to get rid of Smartmatic’s AES solution while the Cerpp has already been looking into the implementation of hybrid technology for 2022 since its first hearing months ago even without the council’s report.

How do we settle these lingering issues raised in the book? The experience of JCOC-AES early this year will speak for itself; that is, tap and convene its technical working group (TWG) that had effectively handled the investigation concerning the irregularities cited by Sen. Tito Sotto in two privilege speeches he gave in March 2018. Even given a very short period of time, the TWG came out with remarkable findings based on the audit logs provided by the Commission on Elections (Comelec) in just two hearings before the 2019 elections.

This TWG intervention is worth applauding and could be considered as the best contribution of the JCOC since 2008 as it made complicated issues between stakeholders easy to understand. As one may have observed in the hearings, all stakeholders in attendance were given ample time to present their views. Subject matter experts were heard. After exhaustive deliberations, a conclusion was derived without any hesitations or reservations from the attendees. Ideal as it may seem, this is the kind of environment that we should experience in settling all past issues before the actual planning for the 2022 elections.

The TWG’s role in investigating may even be further expanded by providing workable solutions to an issue or by coming up with steps on how to mitigate possible risk. An example could be the strategy on how to prevent early transmissions, as happened before the 2016 elections. Though the reply of the Comelec during the JCOC hearings that the early transmissions were not intentional, the TWG’s possible mitigation measure is for all the transmission facilities to be activated only when needed. Hence, there wouldn’t be early transmissions at all!

To better understand the issues cited in the book, one may read the essence of the three-part compilation of 23 articles or read the succeeding articles in this column. Part 1 is all about the “Myth of Comelec’s poll automation success;” Part 2 tackles “Grappling with issues, searching for answers”; and Part 3 covers the “Right to know: Reconciling machine and transparency.”

The foreword of the book was penned by former vice president Teofisto Guingona, AES Watch chairman emeritus. He wrote: “The main objective of automation is not merely speed but clean and credible elections. The Comelec runs the election but it is the automotive process, the cards and the PCOS machines, the men who operate them who follow a process that results in an election that the nation deserves — not only speedy but above all honest, clean and credible.”

On the other hand, CenPEG Executive Director Evita Jimenez wrote in the publisher’s notes: “With just two weeks before the elections [2013], the case remains a sword of Damocles hanging over the Comelec’s head. The JCOC allowed three years to pass without assessing the viability of the AES after the 2010 elections as mandated by law. The Comelec, on the other hand, is unable to install the critical industry-prescribed security features such as digital signatures…nor has it allowed an independent source code review as required by law. As the last instance, the Comelec chairman said, ‘Since there is no source code, then there is nothing to review.’ This is a timely book of searing revelations aimed to counter the lies that 1) the Smartmatic PCOS machines are the answer to fraudulent manual elections of the past; and 2) that by the speed of the machine counting, there is less human intervention and thus, less manipulation.” Ms. Jimenez is quite right in her statement as we actually experienced not only three years, but rather nine years of inaction by the JCOC.

The landscape this year is quite promising! CenPEG/AES Watch is quite positive about the pronouncements of the Cerpp and President Duterte even without the deliberation of the advisory council’s report. And it is also prudent that the new JCOC-AES should also consider convening its first hearing at the soonest possible time not only to comply with the AES law, but more so to come up with a workable strategic plan to alleviate the decade-long issues of AES.