WITH the appointment of a new chairman of the Commission on Elections, it may be time to consider seriously the placing in the hands of an all-Filipino outfit the technical aspects of the country’s automated elections.
This move has been proposed by some quarters, one of the most recent ones being Buhay partylist Rep. Lito Atienza who said that only a Filipino-owned entity should be allowed to supply the technical component of the Automated Election System required by law (RA 9369).
Since 2010, after the enactment of RA 9369 providing for an AES, the technical requirements of elections have been provided by Smartmatic International Corp, a London-based firm 100-percent owned by Venezuelans.
Atienza noted: “If the Constitution restricts the ownership and management of Philippine mass media to 100-percent Filipino firms and limits foreigners to 40 percent of telecom firms and schools, the more reason Philippine elections should be in the hands of Filipinos.”
That argument alone is good enough a reason to entrust completely to an all-Filipino outfit or consortium the design and management of the technical requirements of automated electoral exercises.
There is nothing that Smartmatic or any other foreign entity can do, including the design and management of the AES, that Filipino experts cannot do better. So why entrust elections, a sensitive aspect of Philippine democracy, to foreigners?
The AES system calls for using “appropriate technology in the voting, counting, consolidating, canvassing, and transmission of election results.” Various quarters have been calling attention to the deficiencies of Smartmatic noticed since the 2010 elections.
In the pending protest of former Sen. Ferdinand Marcos Jr. against the election in 2016 of Vice President Leni Robredo, he claims that the canvassing of his votes slowed down after an unauthorized script change in the “transparency” server by Smartmatic and Comelec officials correcting the “n/ñ” in the name of a candidate.
The Marcos camp said the script change affected his votes which, it said, should number more than those garnered by Robredo. Comelec said, however, that the revision did not alter the votes, but that detail has raised a question on the integrity of the canvassing.
This is being mentioned not to blame Smartmatic for the loss of Marcos but to call attention to the vulnerabilities of the system, software and hardware that it has sold to the Comelec. The shortcomings did not help firm up the credibility of the process.
• Smartmatic doing work of Comelec
ONE basic question is why Comelec has, in effect, delegated its function and responsibility under the Constitution to manage Philippine elections to Smartmatic, a foreign supplier and contractor.
There have also been questions over Smartmatic-Comelec deals, including the reported payment of fees to then Comelec chairman Andres Bautista by a law firm handling Smartmatic cases in the poll body. Before he resigned, his wife Patricia disclosed what she said were payment receipts.
If congressional and Comelec officials review the system with the view of possibly making it an all-Filipino activity insulated from foreign influence, they may also look into the United States’ having been a victim of Russian hacking and meddling in US elections.
While they are at it, they may also study the benefits of segmenting the voting part from the transmission of the count, ensuring there is a paper ballot that can be readily read and audited. The electronic transmission and canvassing is another step.
New Comelec chairman Sheriff Abas can use his being top man to press a no-nonsense review of the Smartmatic system and decide whether the election system should be in the hands of foreigners or Filipinos.
Abas was appointed Comelec commissioner in 2015 by then President Noynoy Aquino. His promotion to chairman has to be passed upon by the Commission on Appointments, but his having been handpicked by President Rodrigo Duterte will ensure his confirmation. He will serve the balance of the term of Bautista, who has resigned, expiring on Feb. 2, 2022.
• Optical-scan systems are vulnerable
OFFICIALS and technicians reviewing the AES may want to study the testimony of experts before the US Senate. They called attention to the vulnerabilities of their election systems, some of which had been reportedly supplied by Smartmatic.
Testifying in June before the US Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, J. Alex Halderman, professor of computer science at the University of Michigan, for one, said among other things:
“US voting machines are vulnerable. States choose their own voting technology. The vast majority of votes are cast using one of two computerized methods. Most states and most voters use the first type, called optical scan ballots, in which the voter fills out a paper ballot that is then scanned and counted by a computer. The other widely used approach has voters interact directly with a computer, rather than marking a choice on paper. It’s called DRE, or direct-recording electronic, voting.
“Both optical scanners and DRE voting machines are computers. Under the hood, they’re not so different from your laptop or smartphone, although they tend to use much older technology—sometimes decades out of date.
“Fundamentally, they suffer from security weaknesses similar to those of other computer devices. I know because I’ve developed ways to attack many of them myself as part of my research into election security threats.
“Ten years ago, I was part of the first academic team to conduct a comprehensive security analysis of a DRE voting machine. We examined what was at that time the most widely used touch-screen DRE in the country, and spent months probing it for vulnerabilities. What we found was disturbing: we could reprogram the machine to invisibly cause any candidate to win. We also created malicious software—vote-stealing code—that could spread from machine-to-machine like a computer virus, and silently change the election outcome.
“Vulnerabilities like these are endemic throughout our election system. Cybersecurity experts have studied a wide range of US voting machines—including DREs and optical scanners—and in every case, they’ve found severe vulnerabilities that would allow attackers to sabotage machines and to alter votes. There’s overwhelming consensus in the cybersecurity and election integrity research communities that our elections are at risk.”