“There can never be transparency with machines that count the votes inside the box and invisible to the eyes of the public. There can never be accountability when the results simply pop out of the screen without being verified publicly.”
By MARYA SALAMAT
MANILA – It is not that the 2016 national elections won’t push through – it’s just that your votes won’t be counted right. This, in a nutshell, is the warning aired last week by the (Automated Election System) AES Watch and other election watchdogs, as their members, which include lawyers, academicians, IT experts and whistleblowers, listed worrying decisions being made by the Commission on Elections in preparing for next year’s elections. They urged Congress, the Commission on Audit, the Supreme Court and the Office of the Ombudsman to take action before the Comelec spends billions of public funds again on a foreign poll technology vendor which, they said, doesn’t know how to count the votes properly.
They called for putting an end to what they call as “impunity and unholy alliance of Comelec and Smartmatic-TIM.”
Smartmatic is the foreign-owned company that has cornered billion pesos worth of contracts to supply the Philippines with automated polls technology since it began this supposed modern poll system in the 2010 and 2013 polls. For the 2016 elections, this foreign vendor appears headed again to “counting” the votes, even as groups continue to petition the Supreme Court and protest against any new Smartmatic-Comelec deal.
“There can never be transparency with machines that count the votes inside the box and invisible to the eyes of the public. There can never be accountability when the results simply pop out of the screen without being verified publicly,” said the statement by the Center for People Empowerment in Governance, one of the conveners of AES Watch.
From their discussion, the following revelations emerged as threats to the integrity of the upcoming elections. Worse, these problems have already appeared and plagued the past two elections (2010 and 2013), and the election watchdogs have long urged the Comelec to act on proposals seeking to resolve these problems.
The following lists in no particular order of severity a sampling of these problems and threats hounding the integrity of next year’s elections:
1 Despite election woes with Smartmatic, ‘Comelec actions show it only wants to give the deal to Smartmatic’
Despite concerns and criticisms about the widespread failures of its PCOS, transmission, and general lack of transparency, Smartmatic continues to win the favor of Comelec. The panel of election watchdogs presented by AES Watch in a press conference recently, which included former Comelec lawyer Melchor Magdamo, Philippine Computer Society Foundation president Leo Querubin, and CenPeg officers Temario Rivera and Evita Jimenez, pointed to how, for the first time in history of Philippine Comelec, it changed and reversed its decision three times, created two Bids and Awards Committees, and conducted parallel biddings, to later end up crafting a negotiated contract with Smartmatic.
Leo Querubin and Manuel Luna cited, during AES Watch’s Kapihan with media at Kamuning Bakery in Quezon City, that there seems to be a modus operandi at work to grant the contract to supply and run the 2016 automated polls to Smartmatic. They likened it to having a “Mafia” in the Comelec.
As an example of what this ‘Mafia’ can do to bag the contract for Smartmatic, Magdamo pointed to the 49 days given by Comelec to Smartmatic so it could improve and change its poll machine, after it failed on demonstration. It is unprecedented in Philippine bidding, he said.
2 Billions of public money lost in Comelec’s delay, and later haste, to prepare for 2016 elections
Due to Comelec’s delays in preparing for the 2016 elections, some P4.98 billion additional expense (in buying or renting new PCOS) will be incurred, lawyer Melchor Magdamo said.
This amount is equivalent to the cost of building 15,200 new classrooms, or purchasing 10 coastguard cutters similar to the BRP Gregorio del Pilar, said Leo Querubin. He said the Comelec had sat for more than 400 days on proposals for the diagnosis of the PCOS machines it previously bought from Smartmatic.
Other conveners of AES Watch shared that there were many companies vying for the opportunity to refurbish the more than 81,000 PCOS in the warehouse of Comelec. But the Comelec delayed deciding and drafting a contract for this. The result: its delay became its excuse to enter into a negotiated contract with Smartmatic, and to summarily announce the option to use (to rent or buy) more of new PCOS, citing it was now pressed for time.
Because of Comelec’s delayed action, it said its options were narrowed to just replacing all or majority of the old PCOS machines and thus spending another P8 billion on Smartmatic’s new PCOS machines, Querubin said. He said that if the Comelec had not sat on proposals and instead had the PCOS machines in its P4-million a month rented warehouse diagnosed and refurbished much earlier, most of these should have been improved already by mid-2014.
In addition, Magdamo said the reported 5,000 old PCOS ,which the Comelec later said may still be reused after refurbishment, “actually do not need to be refurbished unlike the rest of the 81,000 plus PCOS.”
3 Comelec remiss in advocating Filipino First in procurement
Lawyer Manuel Luna said at the media briefing led by AES Watch that contrary to COA regulations, the Comelec shows it is being remiss on its fiscal responsibility. “It shouldn’t buy new equipment when it still has equipment at its disposal,” Luna said. He was referring of course to old PCOS machines which, before it was paid with public money, the Comelec assured the country it would be reusable in 2016 elections.
Aside from that, Luna, a volunteer lawyer of AES Watch, questioned the government’s seeming preference for foreign companies and providers, even when there are local alternatives that cost lower, and offer transparent, auditable counting and transmission of votes.
He stressed the call for ‘Filipino First’ as enshrined in government procurement policies, to encourage and support Filipino industry.
Another problem the election watchdogs say the foreign monopoly of poll technology poses is the undue power and influence given to foreigners over who would be this country’s next rulers.
4 Multibillion-peso contract seen as the reason behind Comelec dismissal of local, transparent alternatives
In three months, an alternative election system can be prepared for the 2016 elections, based on the discussion of lawyer Melchor Magdamo and Temario Rivera of CenPeg. The latter expressed satisfaction that there are already two alternative poll systems to PCOS – both of which have been publicly demonstrated in mock elections — and he was optimistic that if the government had been receptive and encouraging, there will probably be more alternatives.
“Here are Filipino technologies, much cheaper, more transparent, but there’s no support from Comelec,” Rivera lamented. He believed these were dismissed “for reasons linked to Comelec’s “special relations, the Mafia-Smartmatic link.”
Lawyer Manny Luna urged the Joint Congressional Oversight Committee to “investigate the local mafia in Comelec, why they keep changing the rules even if these violate the law on procurement.”
The poll watchdogs reiterated that fairness dictates that before the government fully rejected the Filipino IT proposed alternatives to Smartmatic’s PCOS, it should at least pilot-test these alternative poll technologies.
5 Comelec-Smartmatic still has to explain what happened to 2013 votes
Unanswered and unresolved questions continue to hang over the Comelec-Smartmatic handling of last elections. Remember the impossibly high number of voter turnout in the first few hours of Comelec-Smartmatic results on senatorial votes in 2013 elections? The way a Smartmatic technical personnel, Marlon Garcia, made changes to “correct” it, so that in just one hour of tinkering, the 12 million votes counted just two hours after election hours were changed?
Remember how Smartmatic changed the content of the so-called transparency server and installed an intermediary file, meaning an intermediary can filter and modify results being fed into the server?
Evita Jimenez, executive director of CenPeg, said they also noticed how anybody with a computer can connect to the PCOS with the use of USB cable. And they were also the group who first called attention to the failure of CF cards; it turned out that 76,000 CF cards had errors in configuration. In two days, she said, Comelec-Smartmatic changed the configuration, and the demand for an independent certification was swept aside.
Remember also the so-called 60-30-10 pattern in election results, 60 being the percentage points garnered by Liberal Party candidates or allies, as if the opposition did not even have bailiwicks? Election watchdogs pointed out that it is statistically and historically improbable.
In fact, there were already cases won and evidences of discrepancies in actual votes and PCOS-counted and transmitted votes. Lawyer Luna of AES Watch shared that they have had successful election protests which, though seemingly involving small number of votes for certain candidates, are still alarming when considered that all PCOS may have made similar mistakes.
And there was also the confirmed problem of digital line, which had likely affected the votes for senators, partylists and mayors.
Leo Querubin said this vertical digital line cuts across ovals (shading it shows the vote for corresponding candidates). The digital line could add votes to ovals it affected, or render the votes null if it caused over-voting. Querubin said that in 200,000 clustered precincts in last elections, 15 percent had digital lines. It thus affected six million votes.
Smartmatic said they had cleaned their PCOS, but apparently they did not, concluded Querubin.
Lack of digital signatures of machines used to transmit supposed election results also puts the integrity of the votes in doubt especially since, as Querubin pointed out, there were instances when PCOS machines were used to send transmission repeatedly.
Also, “if we go by final testing and sealing, bagsak ang PCOS (PCOS failed),” said lawyer Magdamo.
6. Smartmatic’s many unresolved problems
Based on statements of poll automation advocates, Smartmatic has more problems than its PCOS not counting right nor transmitting verifiable updates. Jimenez of AES Watch said their investigations have showed Smartmatic’s PCOS machines can be easily tampered with, but only with the cooperation of Smartmatic.
As Smartmatic gears to call the shots once more in next year’s elections, the problems seemed to have increased than disappeared because for one, it continues to be locked in legal battle with Dominion, which originally gave it license to use the latter’s poll counting software.
With that license, Smartmatic could only install it in their machines, but Dominion remained the owner of the software. At the AES Watch gathering, Pablo Manalastas, lecturer in Ateneo and UP Computer Science, shared that in the continuing problem, for example, of lack of transparency in the review of Smartmatic’s poll counting source code, there is another layer of problem added by the fact that Smartmatic may not even have the right to change it or grant powers to any party to review it.
With that, Filipinos are back to last automated polls’ problem of not knowing how their votes were being counted, if these were being counted. Since cases questioning various facets of the conduct of past elections and the Comelec-Smartmatic deals are still pending in the Supreme Court, Filipinos continue to be saddled with officials and lawmakers they couldn’t be certain if they had really voted in office.