Et tu, Comelec?

Credit to Author: MA. LOURDES TIQUIA, TMT| Date: Mon, 20 May 2019 17:44:23 +0000


IN the private sector, if you can’t do your job well, you are fired or you resign. It is that exacting, and the CEO does not wait for shareholders to inquire. In the case of Philippines Inc., taxpayers’ money is spent to have just a day of problem-free elections. What do we do with Comelec then, which was given by Congress P10 billion of public funds to manage a one-day job efficiently, effectively and as transparently as possible? Mind you, the Comelec has three years to prepare for every election cycle, but on Election Day it generally buckles, big time!

No, this column is not about the teachers who were tapped to do the Election Day job. They performed well, and we are thankful for them because they are the saving grace of a badly managed election system. The endemic problem is not theirs. It lies solely with Comelec and yes, with Chairman Sheriff Abas, whose term will expire on Feb. 2, 2025, and a certain Commissioner Marlon Casquejo, not known to the public but is no neophyte since he came from inside the institution, being the regional director of Comelec Region 11. Abas was appointed by President Aquino 3rd in April 2015 and has had one experience running an election before the 2019 midterms. He is the youngest, the first Mindanaoan, first Muslim and first Comelec commissioner to be appointed as chairman. Casquejo has had experience in running manual elections twice and automated elections two times. Unfortunately, they were nowhere to be seen in the run-up, during the election (with VCMs conking out and SD cards not working) and worst, during the seven-hour unbelievable delay in the transmission from the transparency server to the KBP/media servers and that of PPCRV. How can voters believe in and trust a system when the decision-makers are nowhere to be found when there are problems? Yes, Comelec is a collegial body and it could have prevented the crisis had it been on hand, been seen and felt by voters.

It is just too predictable, cycle after cycle there are glitches and it seems the Comelec has never learned from it considering these are the same glitches — from the ballot, to the pen markers, to the servers, SD cards and VCMs and in this cycle, the so-called “marked ballots.” Any computer system operates on the principle of GIGO, or garbage in and garbage out. How about it, Comelec? Why don’t you check ballots printed using “magic ink” that resulted in the high incidence of spoiled ballots? There are reports that around 1 million votes for senators were spoiled due to overvoting. But at the local level and for a fee, marked ballots were allegedly mixed with clean ones by 300 batches. Who decided to subcontract the printing of ballots? Who was the printer?

These problems are unbelievable since the same things have happened every election cycle since we embraced automation: 205 vote counting machines (VCMs) malfunctioned during the 2010 elections, 171 in 2013 and 150 in 2016. This year, 961 VCMs and 1,665 SD cards suffered “glitches” during the polls. Remember the alleged source code alteration of VCMs in the 2013 national elections, and the supposedly suspicious new script or computer command to the Comelec’s transparency server during the transmission and counting of election returns in 2016? Why can’t we have a foolproof system?

These issues are preventable if managed properly. VCMs must have been subjected to stress tests for 1,000 ballots, why was it not done? And seriously, SD cards not working properly is so trite because the Comelec retrieved and replaced some 76,000 SD cards in 2010 with newly configured cards just days before the elections. Why can’t the Comelec fix the reported 1,665 SD cards that failed in this election cycle? A commissioner had to tweet saying that 1,253 SD cards were fixed since no information was coming out. What happened to the 412 balance? A case in point is when 40 SDs were not working in the first district of Oriental Mindoro and the provincial election supervisor was suggesting these SDs would have to be brought to Sta. Rosa, Laguna for replacement.

Geography tells you it would take six hours to travel back and forth. Another case in point is the first district of Zamboanga del Norte and the city of Dapitan. There were 82 VCMs in Dapitan City; 38 were not working because of defective SDs and guess what? Comelec had to go to Zamboanga City to get the SD replacements but they were only given 14. What kind of contingency plans were in place?

The PCOS machines, which were first used in the 2010 polls, were found to have problems when they were reused in the 2013 elections, as reported by the Comelec Advisory Council. The same problems seen in the 2010 elections were also encountered in 2013. And we continually wonder why the Comelec has not done much to make it a better experience for voters today.

In its 2013 post-election report, the Comelec council said: “There were at least five types of machine malfunctions, classified as follows: a) The machines failed to initialize; b) Some machines started well but stopped functioning after a few ballots were fed into it; c) Paper jamming; d) The back-up memory cards simply did not work; and e) The machines rejected the ballots fed.” PCOS and VCMs are one and the same. In 2015, the Comelec renamed the PCOS and optical mark reader machines, calling them “vote counting machines,” or VCMs, as the previous names earned the nicknames “Hocus PCOS,” among others. Only 85,000 VCMs were used in 2019 as compared to the 92,000 VCMs in 2016 despite the increase of 9.3 million voters.

It is elementary; if the SD card does not work, the VCM will malfunction. If the VCM did not undergo stress testing, even the final testing and sealing won’t detect it. If VCM malfunctions, transmission will be compromised. Simple, right? But it seems it is not that simple for Comelec. In this cycle, Comelec handled end-to-end, with Smartmatic limited to technical assistance. In 2010 and 2013, it was Smartmatic end-to-end. By 2016, Smartmatic was limited to transmission. Today, we saw voter receipts were made where voters could check if the machine read the ballot correctly. There were no receipts in 2010, 2013 and 2016. This was a good development, but the feature was overshadowed by long lines, nonfunctioning VRVS, and disenfranchisement of voters because of spoiled ballots.

In the end, local candidates and voters want to have a hybrid system for 2022. Let the AES continue with more safeguards as mandated by law — from ultraviolet lights, electronic signatures, etc. — but allow a manual precinct count and a determination of improbabilities when there are more spoiled ballots per clustered precinct.

Once we stop gaming our elections, we start respecting the mandate freely given, and democracy becomes the stabilizing force for the Republic.

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