The Philippine Star - Compel Comelec to obey election law, SC asked

30 April 2019

By Jarius Bondoc | The Philippine Star

Voters are entitled to a verifiable paper audit trail. The Election Automation Law says so. The Supreme Court has ordered its enforcement.

Yet the Comelec is resistant. For three elections it refused to issue receipts to comprise the voter-verified paper audit trail (VVPAT). In the last election, May 2016, the Comelec only partially implemented the law, but foiled the audit trail. Rules were concocted to render the receipts meaningless. Those rules even superseded the Omnibus Election Code.

This May 2019 election watchdog groups are asking the SC to compel the Comelec once and for all to have a full paper audit trail.

That way the watchdogs can countercheck the accuracy of the count. At the close of balloting, volunteer voters can check and photograph the paper receipts in their precinct.

The photos shall form part of the audit trail. The precinct count should not deviate from the volunteers’ audit. That can avert manipulation of the machine count that the voters cannot see. With voters having audit trails of their precinct results, the municipal, city, provincial, district, and national tabulations can be counterchecked too.

The VVPAT is one of 15 basic features required of a vote counting machine (VCM). Smartmatic Corp. of Venezuela, the Comelec’s VCM supplier, claims to have that capability. Filipino taxpayers paid for it when the Comelec lease-purchased hundreds of thousands of Smartmatic VCMs for tens of billions of pesos.

Yet the VVPAT feature was shut off in three elections: in 2008 at the Autonomous Region for Muslim Mindanao; in 2010 for presidential, congressional, and local; and in 2013 for congressional and local.

In partial implementation in May 2016 Smartmatic’s VCMs did issue receipts. The SC had ordered the Comelec to implement the VVPAT. Still the Comelec deliberately did not see the audit trail through. Excuses and motherhood statements were given for it.

The paper receipts were useless. There was no stamp from which Smartmatic VCM it came, in what precinct and locale. The voter was given a momentary glimpse of the receipt. Then it was buried forever in a coffin, the depository box.

At that time, the watchdogs who had won the SC ruling were ready to audit through the “camerambola”. The procedure was for the voter to verify if the paper receipt accurately reflected his vote. Then, he was to drop the receipt into the specified depository box. As stated in the Omnibus Election Code, the voter was forbidden to photograph his ballot, report his vote by phone, or distract the proceedings. No way would he be able to sell his vote to any crooked candidate.

After the balloting, the VCM officially would have counted the votes and transmit the results to the canvassing and consolidation centers. Volunteer voters would have been allowed access to the VVPAT box. The box would be shaken in “karambola (carom)” to mix up the order of the receipts. Then they would have used cameras, including mobile phone, to record each receipt. The voters then, not the Comelec and certainly not the foreign supplier Smartmatic, would have a proper audit trail.

What was wrong with that? Nothing, even the Comelec conceded.

Yet the Comelec gave excuses like lack of material time to prepare and the possibility of prolonging the balloting. One absurd alibi was that the Comelec chairman would be busy as his feet were to be washed by the Cardinal on Maundy Thursday. Maundy preparations by the watchdogs and time-and-motion studies debunked those.

Still, for good measure, the Comelec fired off a directive to ban the carrying of cameras, including cell phones, inside the precinct. It was in direct contravention of the Omnibus Election Code, which allows candidates, party watchers, watchdogs, and ordinary voters to report or photograph precinct proceedings, so long as those are not disrupted and the ballot itself is not photographed. The Comelec claimed it was to prevent vote selling.

Yet the SC had stated in its order of March 2016, only two months prior, that the Comelec “is not given the constitutional competence to amend or modify the law it is sworn to uphold.”

The SC further stated that the Comelec “cannot opt to breach the requirements of the law to assuage its fears regarding the VVPAT. Vote buying can be averted by placing proper procedures. The (Comelec) has the power to choose the appropriate procedures in order to enforce the VVPAT requirement under the law, and balance it with the Constitutional mandate to secure the sanctity and secrecy of the ballot.”

The watchdogs are trying to make the most out of a bad situation. They believe that only the transmission and canvassing of votes should have been automated. That would have ended large-scale vote fraud through “dagdag-bawas” (vote padding-shaving). The precinct manual counting should have been retained for voters to know the results at their precinct.

The VVPAT was included as a basic feature of automation to compensate for the abolished manual precinct count. Yet that too the Comelec is foiling. Why? Is there something wrong with Smartmatic’s VCMs? Are those not 99.995-percent accurate as required by law? Are they manipulatable?

The watchdogs are pleading with the SC to make the Comelec obey its March 2016 ruling. They are the following: AES (Automated Election System) Watch, Buklod Pamilya, Capitol Christian Leadership, Citizens’ Crime Watch, Connecting Businessmen in the Marketplace to Christ, Latter Reign Harvest Ministries, One Vote Our Hope, Upper Room Brethren Church (Philippines), Bernard C. Roque, Diego L. Magpantay, Dolores V. Lavado, Ernesto dela Rosa del Rosario, Jose Lagunzad Gonzales, Juan Santos Pring, Maria Corazon Mendoza Akol, Melchor Gruela Magdamo, Nelson Java Celis, Pablo O. Olmeda, Truadio Benitez Abitona, Vicente Alejo Macatangay, and Wendell Anacay Unlayao.