Scrap unreliable VCMs for credible elections

GOTCHA - Jarius Bondoc - The Philippine Star

Secret balloting, open counting. A flawed election automation violates that. Comelec chose an opaque system in 2010 then reused it in 2013, 2016, 2019 and 2022. Scientists question the process. Manipulation and malicious software are suspected. Yet laymen accept the magical results. Few candidates complain as the Automated Election Law gives them little room for it.

Doubts will stay unless the system is replaced. The tech involves secret balloting and more secret counting at precincts. Thus the transmission and canvassing of municipal, city, provincial, district and national totals are also disbelieved.

Restore manual balloting and counting at precincts, election experts and infotechnologists long advocate. Automate only transmission and canvassing. That way every voter can ensure that his and his precinct’s votes are properly counted.

There was no cheating in the old manual balloting. Precincts consisted of only 200 voters – from the same household, compound, street block. Knowing each other they dared not risk ostracism for cheating. (Vote-buying and coercion are factors external to the balloting and counting.)

Counting commenced upon close of balloting. Three teachers from the community school read aloud the ballots and marked on the blackboard a stick per vote. Party reps, poll watchdogs and voters observed. It took two to five hours, including answering questions and snack breaks. The election return (ER) was filled up and signed. (This is still done in barangay elections.)

If re-adopted, the public count can use new techs. Mobile phones can livestream the proceedings to home viewers.

In the old days, after the precinct count, ballot boxes were brought to municipal or city hall for canvassing. Goons snatch the boxes en route. At canvassing centers, moneyed candidates bribed for large-scale “dagdag-bawas” (vote padding-shaving) by the hundred-thousands or millions. Party treasurers choppered sacks of cash to the canvassers – municipal/city/provincial treasurers and Comelec counterparts. Highest bidders won. In 1995, senator Aquilino “Nene” Pimentel was the first victim of such operation.

No need to physically transport the ballots under automated transmission. Teachers will just beam the ERs for national and local canvassing. Party reps and watchdogs will send the same results to their respective HQs. Voters can check online if Comelec properly encoded the votes in their precincts. Senate President Tito Sotto has filed a hybrid election law for this purpose.

Aside from opacity, the hard and software are too costly. Leasing one vote counting machine cost P123,711 in 2016, or P12 billion for 97,000 VCMs. This 2022, Comelec leased 10,000 more for P864 million or P86,402 apiece.

Each of the 413,000 precincts needs one VCM. But due to prohibitiveness, Comelec clustered the precincts into four per VCM, each serving at least 800 voters (106,000 VCMs were used; 1,000 on standby). Lacking VCMs, voters must queue for hours in the summer heat to cast their ballot.

There are hidden costs. VCM refurbishing: P10,272.74 per unit or P1 billion for the 97,000 old units reused in 2022. Warehousing: P140 million a year. Accessorizing: P1 billion per election.

Automating only the transmission and canvassing would delete those costs. Only laptops and transmission routers would be needed at the precincts – for donation to public schools after use. Central, backup and transmission servers for canvassing are affordable.

Hybrid elections will be manageable. Five Comelec chairmen presided over the five automated elections from 2010 to 2022. No Implementing Rules and Regulations have been drafted for the 2008 AES Law. Comelec merely issues resolutions and general instructions, modified or repealed for every balloting. Result: inconsistency and breaches of that law.

In 2010, due to spotty VCM source code review, Comelec had to replace 97,000 corrupted SD cards and the same number of backup memory cards two weeks before E-Day. The random manual audit showed 0.4-percent variance from the machine count, representing more than 900,000 votes. Thereafter precincts for RMA were no longer publicly picked by tambiolo but by selection app.

In 2013, Ateneo University Mathematics Prof. Felix Muga, PhD, questioned the improbable 60-30-10 senatorial trend. From start to finish, administration bets consistently got 60 percent of votes; opposition, 30 percent; independents, 10 percent.

In 2016, VP candidate Ferdinand Marcos Jr. alleged fraudulent count in his election defeat and protest. That year too, Sen. Richard Gordon had to ask the Supreme Court to force Comelec to issue voter receipts, as required by the AES Law that he authored.

This year, at least six law provisions were unmet. The required digital signatures of teachers were only partially used. Unexplained was the 68:32 presidential trend from start to finish. Also that the winning president and VP candidates each got more votes than the first ranking senatorial aspirant. A first in Philippine elections.


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