Letters to the Editor

Citizens’ groups seek transparency in election rules

The Philippine Star

Less than seven months before the national and local elections in May 2022, the Network for Justice and Compassion (NetJC) and the Tagapagtanggol ng Watawat Inc. (TNW) expressed their concern in a letter to the Commission on Elections (Comelec) dated Oct. 1 “about the lack of clear, complete and transparent implementing rules and regulations (IRR) for the Automated Election System (AES) for the 09 May 2022 National and Local Elections (NLE).”

In the letter, NetJC and TNW stated that aside from the lack of a comprehensive IRR that Comelec is mandated to issue under Section 37 of Republic Act (RA) No. 8436, as amended by RA 9369, the groups enumerated at least six major concerns that the Comelec needs to address to assure the citizens that the upcoming elections will be held in good order, evident transparency and without bias.

Comelec has issued many resolutions in the past without public consultations, which have resulted in errors and lapses in the implementation of the AES Law and in subsequent amendments to earlier resolutions. All the confusion and delays and disputes would have been avoided if a holistic, comprehensive and consultative IRR governed by consensus had been issued and followed in the conduct of automated elections.

In the letter, the two groups said, “Those rules, regulations, general instructions, operational procedures or guidelines have express provisions for the (following) concerns upon public consultation.”

The first concern raised is the right of any person to take a photo of election returns (ER) and certificates of canvass (COC) as mandated by the law and that right is not only for official poll watchers.

The second area of concern is the lack of transparency in the counting of ballots despite the issuance of the voter verification paper audit trail (VVPAT). The existing system only shows that the VVPAT registers the votes of voters but it does not guarantee that the votes of the candidates in the VVPAT receipt are actually counted. It is therefore proposed that a virtual tally board per precinct be made available for transparency in the registration of the votes and the transmission.

Another concern is the Random Manual Audit (RMA) which is to be done based on the AES Law to check the integrity of the machines. In 2019, one precinct per congressional district or city was chosen for the audit and it was done in the National Capital Region several days after the national and local elections. It was not clear to the groups where the ballots and other voting paraphernalia and equipment were stored and secured after the precincts closed.

The citizens’ groups maintain that the RMA be done immediately after the close of polls, with the public provided with the guidelines on the conduct of the random selection. The RMA should be done publicly to ensure that there was a true random selection.

With automated elections, transmission of election results is done electronically. “Section 7 of the AES Law, as amended by RA No. 9369, mandates that all AES electronic transmission shall utilize secure communication channels as recommended by the Comelec Advisory Council (CAC), to ensure authenticity and integrity of transmission.” For the coming elections, it is not clear what secure communication channels will be used and what authentication and codification procedures will be employed for transmission.

According to NetJC and TNW, Comelec should consider that all interested groups monitoring the elections be given access to all the system logs to guarantee integrity and transparency of transmission of results from the precincts up to the National Board of Canvassing and its disaster recovery sites.

The public school teachers are on the frontlines during the election period serving in the electoral boards and boards of canvassers. Through a tripartite agreement among Comelec, the Department of Information Communication Technology (DICT) and the Department of Education (DepEd), 300,000 teachers will be registered with the Philippine National Public Key Infrastructure (PNPKI). Teachers are given “private keys” as digital signatures that they key in when they transmit the ERs. The group proposes that teachers be allowed to change keys much like a bank account personal identification number (PIN) to ensure individuality and security of the digital signatures, as opposed to codes that are assigned to them.

A last but equally critical concern is rooted in Section 13 of the AES Law, as amended, which mandates that “the AES shall be so designed to include a continuity plan in case of a systems breakdown or any such eventuality which shall result in the delay, obstruction or non-performance of the electoral process.”

A curious development is while various Comelec resolutions show there have been contingency measures with regard to the failure of VCMs and Consolidation and Canvassing System (CCS), there is none for the transparency server, National Board of Canvassing servers at the Batasan Pambansa and PICC website server, “Meet the Room” and other processing servers. The lack of a continuity plan for servers creates a huge gap or disruption in the voting process chain.

The existing AES Law mandates that the continuity plan “be published in at least two newspapers of national circulation and its posting on the official Comelec website at least fifteen (15) days before the 2022 NLE.”

The two groups are waiting for a response from the Comelec. – Atty Marnie Tonson (latty.marnie@gmail.com), Atty Arnel Valdna, Kent Sitaca

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