The Manila Times - Whatever happened to electoral fraud investigations?

1 December 2018

By Antonio P. Contreras | The Manila Times

I AM tempted to ask once again where is Andy Bautista, except that it seems no one is interested anymore, at least not Malacañang, not Congress, and certainly not even the mainstream media, and even many in social media.

For those who already forgot, we have to be reminded that asking for Andy Bautista represents our quest for answers to many questions regarding the allegations of fraud during the May 2016 elections. In six months, we are going to have the 2019 midterm elections, using the same technology by the same service provider, under the same administration and rules of the same Commission on Elections (Comelec). It is definitely odd, to say the least, how there is very little haste exhibited, no sense of urgency, to ensure that whatever doubts were raised on the integrity of the 2016 elections would have been amply addressed and cured.

It is not as if we were short of starting points to guide us through the maze of allegations. The election protest of former senator Bongbong Marcos has revealed a disturbing set of patterns, acts and documents that could have fertilized a concerted effort to inquire into the allegations and look for the truth. People like lawyer Glenn Chong, and other election watchers and IT experts, have presented compelling arguments, mostly from their own technical expertise, which could have triggered any rational mind to venture into a serious digging, unearthing and investigating.

There is a joint congressional oversight committee (JCOC) which is mandated to conduct congressional inquiries into the conduct and implementation of the automated election system (AES). Its job is to ensure that whatever gaps, flaws and loopholes observed during the conduct of an election be addressed, and adequate changes in practices can be instituted and, if needed, the necessary changes in the law be legislated in time for the next election cycle. It is therefore implied that there is a sense of urgency that attends the work of the JCOC because its recommendations may require the longer process of amending the law.

Right after the conduct of the 2016 elections, when I was personally very much involved in making public the disturbing data trends which attended the vice-presidential race, I remember receiving an invitation to appear in a hearing of this committee. However, before the hearing could be conducted, I received a notice that the hearing had been postponed.

Public hearings of the JCOC require a more open process, and should not be limited to the Commission on Elections (Comelec). The urgent nature of its work requires that those hearings should be done immediately after every election.

Much publicity was recently generated by the JCOC, but only after Senate President Sotto delivered a privilege speech exposing the possible anomalies during the 2016 elections. The televised hearings offered the public a ring-side view of the various allegations which have already been made public by Glenn Chong, but this time supported by other parties such as other protesting candidates like former Gov. Luis Villafuerte of Camarines Sur, and by different election watchdogs.

And the procession of testimonies was simply damning, from stories of vote counting machines (VCMs) already transmitting votes even before the elections, to missing or out-of-sequence digital images of ballots, to the presence of an unauthorized fourth queuing server, to an admission that there was no proper vetting of the source code as mandated by law. Hope was rekindled when the Committee, through its co-chair from the Senate, Koko Pimentel, promised to call in the next hearing the witnesses which provided Senator Sotto the information he used in his privilege speech.

But immediately dashing that hope — which further raised doubts in the minds of the public — was the not-too-subtle attempt to control Glenn Chong, and to effectively diminish his opportunity to produce more evidence against the Comelec and Smartmatic, the automated election service provider. This was even aggravated by the fact that the next hearing of the committee was conducted as an executive session, away from the prying eyes of the media and the public, and was only exposed by an innocent tweet by no less than Comelec Commissioner Rowena Guanzon.

And worst of all, Sotto’s witnesses have yet to be called to testify.

The optics of this move by the committee, when taken as part of the entire universe that started from the fact that Andy Bautista was allowed to leave the country, to the fact that there has been no attempt to bring him back to help enlighten us on the various puzzles and questions, simply add to the growing concern among some people about the seriousness of the Republic to make the 2019 elections fraud-proof. The inability of the JCOC to have a timely conclusion of its investigations, which led to the absence of a definitive finding on what really happened, and of recommendations on what steps should be taken, have enabled Comelec to have the audacity to boldly state that there is nothing to fear about their system, as there is no evidence that it can be tampered with.

Frustrated with the delay by JCOC, lawyers Glenn Chong and Trixie Angeles are offering to Comelec an alternative system, which they label as “plan B.” The jury is still out if the Comelec, which has been steadfast in its denial of anomalies, and its celebration of its system as immune from fraud, can give the proposal by Chong and Angeles a fair hearing.

What is even more infuriating is that our election system appears to be so messed up, that the ongoing proceedings of the bodies handling electoral protests, such as that filed by former Bongbong Marcos, can sometimes be used as an excuse to delay the process to cure the effects of electoral fraud, either in a speedy resolution of electoral protests or in the formulation of steps to improve the system. It is therefore not surprising that we produce conundrums like that of Koko Pimentel who is facing a disqualification case because of the delay in the resolution of his protest.

It is here that you can really watch and weep at how the US handles its elections, with their quick results, and state-funded automatic recounts that have deadlines.

But not in our country, where there seems to be a systemic conspiracy to treat elections, which are in fact the foundation of democracy, as matters that can be delayed and postponed, and not as an urgent matter whose problems, flaws and anomalies require quick resolution and cure.

And what is worse is that there is even no assurance that adverse findings in one protest find its way into another. Sakur Tan’s protest against Mujiv Hataman, for example, revealed that the signatures of 80 percent of those who voted in ARMM in May 2016 allegedly did not match those who were registered. This is what the Comelec itself has found using its own process of handling a local election protest. The fact that whether this can be used to settle Marcos’ protest and to invalidate the results in ARMM remains a legal question, and not a logical conclusion, speaks tons about the illogic of our electoral system that, while automated, still operates on archaic norms and procedures.