One of the cornerstones of a democratic society is the assurance of a free and fair election system. Thus, it is imperative that governments must ensure the security and integrity of elections, to assure its citizens that leaders are elected by the will of the people and not through the fraudulent actions of any single entity or group. To achieve this, two conditions must be guaranteed. First, no one but the voters themselves must know the contents of their ballot, so nobody can be advantaged or disadvantaged by another party due to their vote. Second, the voters must know confidently that their ballot has been transparently counted, and not discarded or replaced by a malicious party.
The Philippine electoral system, in contrast, has historically been marred with widespread electoral fraud and violence, owing to the vast control that major political dynasties, their cronies, and their financial backers have over both local and national politics. Electoral fraud, vote-buying, tampering of vote counting process, and the disenfranchisement of certain groups, such as the poor and marginalized communities are common practices during elections. There have also been concerns about the lack of transparency and accountability in the electoral process, as well as the limited access to information and resources for voters.
Ferdinand Marcos Sr., for example, ran what external observers identified as the “dirtiest campaign” in Philippine electoral history up until then, utilizing money, influence, and violence to coerce or threaten people into voting for him. In 1992, the first national elections after the historic People Power Revolution, then-secretary Miriam Defensor Santiago narrowly lost the presidential race to Fidel Ramos after many observers noticed significant irregularities in the conduct of the elections. In 2004, then-incumbent president Gloria Macapagal Arroyo again narrowly won the elections to actor Fernando Poe Jr.; she was later implicated in the Hello Garci cheating scandal, which involved the leaking of a phone call recording between Arroyo and an election commissioner talking about the rigging of the results. Election watchdogs have consistently lobbied for an election system that prevents widespread cheating done by politicians and protects the sanctity of the vote. These reflect the deep-rooted problem in the Philippine election system which has been traditionally undemocratic and elitist exercise.
Despite efforts to reform the system, these issues have persisted over the years and continue to be a source of frustration and disappointment for many Filipinos. It is with this intention that the Philippine government laid out its push for automated elections, with the passage of RA 9369 or the Automated Election Law. Initially rolled out in the 2010 national elections, the Automated Election System (AES) promised to promote transparency, ensure the secrecy of the ballot, all while preventing widespread electoral fraud and increasing the speed of the vote count.
Since its implementation, however, the AES has been marred with various technical glitches that cast doubt on its credibility to protect and safeguard the people’s vote. Reports of corrupted or broken down equipment, resulting in long lines and voting delays, have historically marred every election since 2010. Technical glitches, such as the hash code discrepancy in 2016 caused by human error and the “seven-hour glitch” in 2019 that left the voting transparency server without updates for a long period of time, more easily instill distrust in the AES. In addition, some of the procedures mandated by law to ensure electoral transparency have not been implemented by the government and its Commission on Elections (Comelec). For example, it was only during the most recent elections that the official returns from a vote-counting machine were to be signed by the electoral board, instead of being self-signed by a machine, even though this has been mandated in law since its passing. This has pushed many individuals and groups, initially supportive of the efforts to automate the election system, to seek other alternatives to the current election system, including the concept of a “hybrid” automated and manual election system.
While it is difficult to collect evidence that electoral fraud has happened in the last few automated elections, the opaqueness and lack of safeguards of the design of the AES do not make voters confident that their vote is counted while still being kept secret. This is especially relevant in the context of the 2022 elections, as various individuals have casted doubt on its conduct and results. In this paper, we outline the current vulnerabilities and issues of the current AES, particularly in the context of the 2022 elections, as well as concrete ways forward to resolve these issues in the 2025 general elections and beyond.
The 2022 national elections have been one of the most hotly-contested in history. With a worldwide pandemic raging, an economic depression impacting millions of Filipinos, and the deeply-divisive and controversial presidency of Rodrigo Duterte coming to a close, the presidential race saw former senator and dictator’s son Ferdinand “Bongbong” Marcos Jr., the effective administration candidate, run against then-Vice President and opposition candidate Leni Robredo, whom he lost to in 2016. With a massive disinformation campaign to promote Marcos Jr.’s candidacy and disparage Robredo’s, and despite a mass movement backing the opposition candidate, election results showed Marcos winning by almost double the votes of Robredo.
This landslide win happened on the back of one of the most controversial election days in history. The election watchdogs Kontra Daya and Vote Report PH received 2,683 election-related reports during the 2022 elections, including 1,318 incidents of VCM errors. These included incidents where ballots were left by voters to be fed by election officials later into a working VCM, as their supposed VCM failed to work; and incidents of long lines that spanned past midnight, as voters waited in line to feed their ballots into a VCM that would be delivered to their precinct in the middle of the night.
Kontra Daya and Vote Report PH also received other reports of more traditional election fraud. Incidents of vote buying were reported in precincts across the country, as well as black propaganda against progressive and opposition groups and individuals. These fraud tactics were simply a culmination of tactics that were employed months or even years before campaign season even started, and has historically been part of the political dynasty-dominated Philippine electoral system even before automation.
Critics of the conduct of the 2022 elections point out various technical inconsistencies and errors that further put into question the validity of the 2022 elections, and suggest the possibility of widespread electronic cheating in addition to clear traditional fraud. These allegations are nothing new, of course, and various groups have been putting forward evidence of electronic cheating since the first automated elections in 2010; most notably, in 2016, Marcos Jr. himself filed an electoral protest alleging that he was cheated in the vice presidential race against Robredo.
We note that these concerns over the validity of election results can be entertained because the design of the electoral system itself is wholly opaque, thus making it highly prone to manipulation; it is not difficult to imagine that a group or individual, with access to the equipment used in the conduct of elections, can manipulate the way in which votes are counted and thus change the results of the election, while being almost undetectable and untraceable. This is because the machine that reads people’s ballots and tallies votes – the vote counting machine or VCM – cannot be readily audited by a voter for them to be confident that their vote is counted correctly. In other words, the design of the VCM can easily violate the principle of public counting; in contrast, it is easy for a voter to see, check, and trust a person counting ballots from a ballot box, or detect if said person is manipulating the vote count, in the case of manual elections.
For a voter to trust that the VCM is counting correctly, they must first trust that the application inside the machine that is counting the vote is doing so correctly. Programmers and information technology experts are allowed by law to inspect how this application works and how it actually counts votes, in what is known as the source code review process. However, these experts are not allowed to undergo this process at their own pace, and instead have to inspect the application’s source code on a single day, projected on a screen as an official goes through the code as if it were a slideshow. It is also difficult for any concerned IT expert to apply to join the source code review. Even if the application was proven to be independently correct, a bad actor could still find a way to load a malicious and incorrect version onto the thousands of VCMs that could be used, despite various measures that the Comelec employs to avoid situations like this from happening.
There are still many other ways in which someone could reasonably manipulate the results of an election without being undetected, especially considering the scale and complexity of the AES. Months before the elections, the Comelec has to prepare all needed election paraphernalia, configure the almost one hundred thousand VCMs with the correct candidate information and test them if they work and operate correctly, and then deliver them to the many precincts across the country. This happens in the span of a few months, with most elements of the process done away from the eyes of most election watchers. A bad actor could think of many avenues in which someone could easily manipulate the results of the elections by simply taking advantage of the opaqueness and complexity of election procedures.
This is especially concerning given that, in the 2022 elections, many observers noted that the company handling the delivery of election paraphernalia, F2 Logistics, was owned by Dennis Uy, a billionaire who was notably close to President Rodrigo Duterte. F2 Logistics provided transport and delivery services for election materials such as ballots, voting machines, and other election paraphernalia in the 2022 National Election. It is reasonable to assume that this would place much of the control over what should be an independent and impartial mechanism to the ruling administration and its allies, which could be used to sway the results of the election.
What makes this doubly concerning is that foreigners and private corporations are currently directly involved in the election process in the Philippines. Smartmatic is a foreign, private company that has been contracted to provide the technology and equipment for the Philippine automated elections since 2010. As a private company, Smartmatic holds proprietary rights over its election technology and related services. These proprietary rights allow private and foreign corporations to maintain control over its election technology and related services, and to restrict access to its systems and data. Smartmatic’s involvement has been subject to controversy and criticism. There have been concerns raised about the security, transparency, and integrity of AES that use Smartmatic’s technology, as well as questions about the company’s political affiliations and potential conflicts of interest.
It also does not help that Comelec has refused to explain well or have ignored concerns over the conduct of certain election procedures. For example, the random manual audit process attempts to match the results between physical ballots and the machine-processed electoral returns, in order to further reinforce the accuracy of the VCMs. Comelec has, however, not explained or been fully transparent about the methodology in which the audited precincts are selected. Comelec’s data storage practice in the 2022 election, which involved the rapid deletion and wiping of data from the servers that stored voting data, also does not inspire confidence in the conduct of elections.
It is to note that some election observers have pointed out some specific discrepancies with the actual conduct of elections and used these as proof that the election was rigged. Many observers point out three specific pieces of alleged evidence that put into question the validity of the elections. First, some observers note the speed of the 2022 election results; by 8 p.m., merely an hour after polls closed, almost 40,000 VCMs already transmitted results, according to public Comelec statistics. Critics note that this ‘remarkable’ transmission speed would be impossible to achieve in an hour, given the state of telecommunications infrastructure in the country and the process of preparing the VCMs for transmission. However, advancements in telecommunication infrastructure forced by the onset of a pandemic that forced many people to rely on online services, coupled with the relative smallness of the size of returns transmissions, would readily explain the speed of actual transmissions. In fact, the number of VCMs that transmitted results roughly matches that of the last presidential elections in 2016.
Critics also point out that the percentage of results logged in the transparency server ran above the official Comelec tally on the number VCMs that transmitted results, citing particularly the October report of the Comelec regarding transmission speeds. Note that when the VCM is ready to transmit data, it transmits it to three separate servers: a local canvassing server that collates the final and official count, a national server as a backup and countercheck, and a transparency server that collates the partial and unofficial count for public consumption. Using official Comelec reports released on election night, and assuming that each VCM serves around 600 voters, it could be assumed that around 24,000,000 votes could already have been transmitted by the VCMs, which roughly matches the number of votes recorded in the transparency server’s first report at 8:17 p.m.. Thus, this piece of information alone cannot reasonably prove the illegitimacy of the elections.
Lastly, critics also point out that the percentage of votes between Marcos Jr. and Robredo hovered at roughly the same 60 percent to 30 percent ratio for almost the entirety of the local elections. This can also be easily disproved by the fact that, at election closing time, a relatively large proportionate sample of VCMs from almost all regions of the Philippines transmits data, resulting in the initial 60-30 ratio between the top two candidates. Any further change in the vote tallies would necessarily not impact the ratio between candidates that much. Observing vote ratios in certain vote-rich areas, the 60-30 ratio is less pronounced, owing to regional strengths of the candidates; however, since most regions transmit data at roughly the same rate, this regional bias disappears at the national level.
Despite this, these allegations still carry weight precisely due to the fact that the election system is not transparent and highly prone to manipulation. Again, it is not difficult to imagine how an adversary can easily manipulate the system for their own gain, and cover up their tracks in the process. In fact, many of these vulnerabilities have been in the automated election system since its initial implementation in 2010, and many groups such as the Center for People Empowerment in Governance (CENPEG) and the Automated Election System Watch (AES Watch) have continuously raised these concerns even before automated elections were ever conducted. Until the Comelec and the national government can present an election system that resolves these concerns, it is easy to doubt the validity of the election results.
The “black-box” nature of automated elections, particularly with respect to the VCMs, still makes it difficult to trust the transparency and integrity of the conduct of elections, despite COMELEC’s efforts to increase its transparency and security and even if COMELEC resolves most of the concerns laid out by election watchdogs. Many countries have actually reverted to manual elections or even desisted from implementing automated elections due to this. Some election watchdogs and groups have floated the idea of hybrid elections, where voting and counting is done manually, while canvassing and collating returns is done electronically. In this system, voters manually fill up a paper ballot to be deposited in a ballot box. At the end of elections, an election official counts the votes one by one, as other officials tally the announced votes both on paper and electronically. Canvassing and consolidation of votes can thus be done electronically within a matter of days, with a paper trail present to double-check the validity of the vote count.
The hybrid election proposal maintains the inherent speed advantage with automated elections, while increasing the transparency of the election system, readily restoring trust in the voting process, and making counting irregularities easier to detect. Thus, we believe that pushing for a hybrid election system would be a positive step towards increasing electoral transparency. Multiple groups have filed proposals, including the Makabayan bloc in the House of Representatives, that filed house bills proposing the said system. Multiple groups and individuals, including some Comelec officials and chapters of some official watchdog groups like the National Citizens’ Movement for Free Elections (Namfrel), have also expressed interest in switching to a hybrid system.
It is important to note that, even if efforts are made to increase transparency of the electoral system, we cannot fully trust that it is truly democratic as its conduct is still controlled by elite politicians, political dynasties, and private and foreign companies. In the long term, those who desire a truly democratic election must struggle for an election system that is locally-built, open-source, readily-auditable, and mass-oriented. Only an election system that is made by the people to serve the people can ensure a democratic, free, and fair elections.
Root Access is an opinion section maintained by the Compputer Professionals’ Union.