Comelec should ensure transparent, ‘fully auditable’ 2025 midterm elections — NAMFREL

Cristina Chi - Philstar.com
Comelec should ensure transparent, �fully auditable� 2025 midterm elections � NAMFREL
Comelec Chairman George Garcia admitted that the poll body used one IP address for the 20,300 modems that were used to transmit election results.
The STAR / Miguel De Guzman

MANILA, Philippines — With preparations underway to fully automate the 2025 midterm elections, poll watchdog the National Movement for Free Elections (NAMFREL) has called on the Commission on Elections (Comelec) to publicize every step of the upcoming election process to ensure full transparency.

Citing the need for prudent spending of public funds, NAMFREL has also suggested several procurement law reforms to encourage more suppliers and contractors to join the biddings of the Comelec and “level the playing field” of the procurement process.

Since 2010, only controversial technology provider Smarmatic Philippines has secured all the biddings of the Comelec.

NAMFREL's “call to action” comes ahead of the upcoming budget deliberations in Congress where lawmakers will decide on the budget allocation for the government’s electoral body. This will determine how much Comelec can spend on the procurement of equipment for the planned 2025 Automated Election System (AES).

The group said that the Comelec must uphold “the standards of transparency, cost-effectiveness, accessibility and inclusivity, reliability, security, safety, and fairness” in the upcoming elections.

Congress and the government’s procurement board “must adopt before the end of 2023 the procurement law reforms necessary to further the standard of cost-effectiveness,” NAMFREL added.

Auditability from beginning to end

The public must be able to see and understand every step of the election process and the AES, and it must be clear who is responsible for each step, what they have to do, and how they will be held accountable, NAMFREL said.

“Transparency means the auditability of the AES and the entire election process from beginning to end. An independent verification and examination by bodies and organizations outside the Comelec is necessary to ensure the accuracy and integrity of the electoral process,” the poll watchdog added.

NAMFREL said that “all steps must be traceable” from the ballot filled up by voters up to the Voter Verified Paper Audit Trail (VVPAT), the canvassing and consolidation. This would require “the maintenance of an audit trail and comprehensive documentation, including all logs, throughout the electoral process,” the group added. 

This means that all important actions, transactions, and decisions connected to the automated system should be documented and made available to the public on the Comelec website, NAMFREL said.

NAMFREL also said that all AES software should "not be proprietary” and should use a General Public License or Election Technology Public License to ensure that it can be reviewed by everyone.

Competitive bidding 

NAMFREL said that there must be greater competition in the procurement process to ensure that the supplier with the greatest capability can deliver what’s needed “at a low, but not the lowest price.”

With the procurement for the automated elections scheduled in 2024, NAMFREL suggested two procurement reforms that it said would open the bidding process to more service providers.

NAMFREL said that Congress needs to eliminate the provision demanding prior use of the system in other countries, which hinders Filipino service providers from being considered. 

In its second suggestion, the group said that the Government Procurement Policy Board (GPPB) should exempt the AES from the Single Largest Completed Contract (SLCC) requirement, which currently disqualifies potential bidders with contracts below a certain percentage of the approved budget.  

“Removal of these requirements will open the playing field for local Filipino bidders and further the standard of cost-effectiveness and showcasing the Filipino IT expertise that we so proudly export and/or being used by so many multinational BPO companies operating in the Philippines,” the group said.

NAMFREL added that all procured equipment should remain usable for all electoral exercises “instead of these remaining only in storage in between national and local elections.”

The poll watchdog also called on the Comelec to improve its market study and industry surveys and expand the definition of 'similar contract' for AES procurement. It also proposes that the GPPB should allow COMELEC to create its customized procurement manual.

“Speed of the election results should be considered a low-hanging fruit: it is not enough,” NAMFREL said.

There was a "very serious" security breach in Smartmatic's operations months before the May 9 polls in 2022, according to senators during an executive session on electoral reforms, with concerns revolving around the alleged compromise in Smartmatic's process and operations.

A number of former government officials filed a petition to disqualify Smartmatic last month from joining Comelec's future bidding processes, citing "material discrepancies" in the electoral returns counted between the precincts and the Comelec Transparency Server.

Comelec chairperson George Garcia said that the electoral body is already planning to start the procurement process for the AES that will be used in the May 2025 midterm elections. Public bidding for the Fully Automated System with Transparency Audit and Count or FASTrAC is expected to begin by September. — with reports by The STAR / Mayen Jaymalin

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