Continuing questions on automated elections

The proclamation by the Commission on Elections (Comelec) of the winners in the senatorial and partylist elections held on May 13 may have been generally accepted by the public.

However, many questions persist on the conduct of the electoral campaign (massive vote buying/selling, blatant Comelec rules violations, among others) and on the reliability and credibility of the automated election system (AES), used for the fourth time with more technical glitches than in the previous polls. These unresolved questions engender a strong feeling of dissatisfaction if not frustration and lingering doubt among the people on the integrity of the entire electoral process. It’s good that the various election watchdog groups, such as Kontra Daya, are not letting matters as they are, or have been for several elections. They continue to expose what they have found out, ask more questions, and reach out to the public to inform and urge them to act accordingly. This morning, Kontra Daya is sponsoring a forum with various groups at a facility of the Commission on Human Rights in Quezon City. The forum is titled, “Subverting the People’s Will: A forum on the conduct and outcome of the 2019 elections.”

Two poll watchdogs and a civil society group have resorted to legal action. They have filed a complaint before the Ombudsman against three Comelec officials – one for “serious dishonesty”and the other two for “gross neglect of duty” to ensure a credible automated election. They included in the complaint former Comelec chairman Andres Bautista and the automated election system (AES) provider, Smartmatic-Total Information Management Corp., for allegedly failing to implement the provisions of the Automated Election System Act (Republic Act 8436) and its amending law, RA 9369) both in the 2016 and 2019 elections.

The complainants – Automated Election System Watch (AES-Watch), Mata sa Balota, and Citizen Crime Watch – urged the Ombudsman to form a special task force that would focus on the alleged election anomalies and to place the current Comelec officials concerned under preventive suspension during the period of investigation.

Notable in their complaint is this observation: “The latest electoral disaster, which mainstream media downplays as glitch, is perhaps the worst in Philippine election history in terms of machine malfunctions that appear intentional-pretending-to-be-accidental.”

Meantime, the Joint Congressional Oversight Committee (JCOC) on the AES, presided over by Sen. Aquilino Pimentel III (one of the 12 proclaimed winners in the senatorial race) and his House counterpart, is set convene on June 4 to investigate if there have been irregularities in the May 13 elections. Whether the investigation would satisfactorily provide answers to the many questions raised seems to be a big question itself. Why so?

The JCOC did a similar investigation of the May 2019 elections essentially on problems raised over the AES. Yet, the final report on that probe, which reportedly contains recommendations on improving the AES, has not been made public till now. It reportedly debunks the Comelec’s assertion that if the electronically transmitted results of the voting matched the election returns (ER) from the clustered precincts, there could not have been any tampering done.

According to economist-columnist Solita Collas Monsod, the report was submitted to the JCOC Secretariat only on March 18, 2019, and distributed to the JCOC technical working group only last month. This was too late for the report’s recommendations to have been adopted for this year’s elections. Ergo, Monsod’s caustic remark: “Thus are our elections so cavalierly managed.”

On its part, the Makabayan bloc of militant partylist representatives has urged the House of Representatives to look deeper into the allegations of massive vote buying and selling in the May 13 elections. Vote buying (which is a form of election cheating), it said, could have undermined the AES and affected the credibility of the election process and its results.

In a public statement, the bloc pointed out that the combination of widespread vote buying and use of government resources to favor administration candidates have rendered the poll results highly questionable and not reflective of the people’s mandate.

The Philippine National Police has confirmed that vote buying and selling indeed occurred extensively, having arrested some perpetrators and confiscated money allegedly used in the prohibited transactions. As to whether the PNP can successfully prosecute the vote buyers, which could include influential politicians, this remains in doubt.

Weighing in on this issue, labor advocate-economic analyst Rene E. Ofreneo wrote: “The phenomenon of massive vote buying in the recent elections, from the highly urbanized areas of Metro Manila to the hinterlands of ARRM [now BARRM] area, is a clear reflection that poverty is also widespread.” Poverty, he noted, has been transformed by the rich and powerful into “an instrument for the commodification of votes and perpetuation of an unequal system of political representation.”

Beyond seeking congressional inquiry on vote buying and electoral cheating, the Makabayan bloc has announced that it will file a legislative measure, in the incoming Congress, seeking to change the current system of voting.

The militant bloc has overcome a vicious “zero-vote for Makabayan partylists” nationwide campaign by the DND/AFP and DILG/PNP involving red-tagging, villification, harassment and threats. Except for Anakpawis, it won three congressional seats for Bayan Muna, and one each for Gabriela Women’s Party, ACT Teachers, and Kabataan Partylist.

“We will recommend to go back to manual voting or a mixed type of electoral system just like what other countries have done,” said Bayan Muna Rep. Carlos Isagani Zarate, who would lead the Makabayan bloc in the 18th Congress. He referred to Germany and the Netherlands, which have returned to manual voting because they saw that automated voting can be manipulated and corrupted.

The Makabayan bloc has been among the severe critics of the Comelec and its fault-ridden use of the AES, particularly when it allowed foreigners to directly run the voting system. Thus, it declared: “We also demand the scrapping of the privatized and foreign control over the automated election system and our democratic and sovereign electoral exercise.”

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Email: satur.ocampo@gmail.com

Published in Philippine Star
May 25, 2019

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