POSTSCRIPT / September 11, 2022 / Sunday

By FEDERICO D. PASCUAL JR.

Philippine STAR Columnist

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Hybrid polls: Costly, confusing backstep

It would be a mistake to adopt a hybrid election system where ballots are filled out and counted manually and the results electronically sent for canvassing. Stepping back even with just one foot to the bad old days would be too costly, confusing and regressive.

The Commission on Elections says the government will spend more if it adopts a] hybrid election system. Photo: CNN Philippines

We leaped to modern technology with 5G (fifth generation) potential when we amended the older Automated Election System (AES) law in 2007. It would be disastrous to return to the 3Gs (guns, goons and gold) of a discredited bygone era.

In the last May 9 national elections, there were 65.75 million registered voters, more than 80 percent of whom cast their ballots across an archipelago of more than 7,000 islands. The AES law (RA 9369 approved in 2007, amending RA 8436) also helped us successfully carry out that massive operation nationwide and in Filipino communities abroad.

Within 50 hours of the close of voting, the servers of the Commission on Elections and the poll watchdog National Citizens’ Movement for Free Elections (Namfrel) were already showing Ferdinand R. Marcos Jr. and Sara Z. Duterte on their way to winning the presidency and the vice presidency, respectively.

The apparent efficiency of the AES, while not perfect, minimized complaints. The worst was that some voters had to line up outside a few voting precincts because of the heavy turnout and the malfunctioning of some vote counting machines (VCMs).

There were isolated reports of vote-buying (captured on video) but none of the old cases of ballot boxes having been stuffed with spurious ballots, ballot box snatching and poll workers getting hurt when refusing to surrender them, and other untoward incidents.

The fast electronic counting and canvassing and the timely proclamation of the winners contributed to lessening the usual tension of elections. With many Filipinos plied with propaganda having grown partisan, the cooling effect of a quick credible count was valuable.

During the budget hearing at the House of Representatives this week, newly confirmed Comelec chair George Erwin Garcia told the appropriations committee that shifting to a hybrid election system would cost around ₱42 billion.

Garcia said, “Mas mahal po ang hybrid system as compared to the fully computerized election. Magkakaroon po tayo ng mas mahabang period ng mga guro and therefore katulad po ng nangyari sa amin nagdagdag po kami ng kanilang honoraria.

Kapag po tayo ay nag-hybrid, tayo po ay gagastos ng ₱42.3 billion. Kapag fully computerized only, tayo po ay gagastos ng ₱32 billion.”

The Comelec chair proposed that the 90,000 VCMs used in the May 2022 elections be stored and new ones leased or purchased for coming elections. The Comelec has reported, btw, that fewer VCMs malfunctioned this year than in the 2019 midterm elections.

He added, “These are old machines already and we honestly believe that by 2025 magkakaproblema na po tayo sa mga makinang yan and so hopefully Congress would allow us to lease or if not purchase new machines for 2025.”

Garcia said they would conduct bidding for the sourcing of the technology for the next automated election and also consider the issues raised against the performance of Smartmatic, its poll automation contractor.

• Garcia, Macalintal agree on hybrid idea

Garcia happens to have been the lawyer of now President Marcos in his protest before the Supreme Court sitting as the presidential electoral tribunal against then Vice President Leni Robredo. Marcos lost with finality in February 2021 with the SC/PET saying he failed to “substantiate his allegations of massive anomalies and irregularities” allegedly committed by Robredo.

For balance, we asked lawyer Romulo Macalintal, counsel of Robredo in the Marcos poll protest, what he thought of the proposal to adopt a hybrid system to minimize computerized cheating. He told us via Viber:

“The present computerized election is still the best. Hybrid polls will have human intervention in terms of writing the names of candidates on the ballots and the manual counting and manual tabulation. It would be too easy in areas controlled by warlords to intimidate voters and election officials and merely manufacture results of polls in the precinct which will then be transmitted electronically.

“Thus what will be transmitted will be spurious results from the polling precinct to the municipal board of canvassers to the provincial board and to the national board of canvassers.

“Since the first automated polls to 2022, there has been no evidence of error in the automated counting of ballots and automated transmission. But like during manual polls meron pa rin terrorism and vote-buying, which means these are man-made frauds and not machine fraud.”

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The AES law mandates that at least three months before Election Day, political parties must be able to review the “source code” of the hardware. The code is the human-readable copy of the instructions installed in binary language in the computers for them to function properly.

The source code review for the 2022 polls reportedly started in October 2021. Political parties, cause-oriented groups, and IT experts were invited. Some of those who reportedly attended were from PPCRV, Aksyon Demokratiko, Partido Federal, NPC, KBL, Lakas, and Namfrel. The Liberal party and the 1Sambayan coalition were not mentioned.

Aside from the main servers deployed to receive electronically non-stop the results of the May voting from VCMs nationwide, there was a “transparency” server to which the media, the accredited dominant majority and dominant minority parties, and other accredited groups reportedly had access. Did they take advantage of this opening?

There was some noise in May about SD (Secure Digital) cards having been possibly used to intrude into the functioning of the VCMs and alter election results. Some technicians who carry such cards could have used them allegedly on the pretext of trouble-shooting. But no solid case of such breach gained traction.

(First published in the Philippine STAR of September 11, 2022)

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