Opinion


Our democracy is subverted by Comelec




Strategic Perspective
René B. Azurin


Posted on September 11, 2014


IT WOULD ACTUALLY be comical -- if it weren’t so serious -- that people continue to think in terms of the popularity (or lack of it) of all these candidates lusting hungrily for the highest public offices in the upcoming 2016 presidential polls. No one it seems has yet fully grasped the fact that, since the 2010 elections, the key to winning political office is no longer the favor of the voting masses but, instead, the benediction of the tiny cabal that controls the computerized system for our automated elections.

  
  PHOTO
A woman scans a ballot on an electronic vote-counter at a polling station during midterm elections in Manila on May 13, 2013. The Philippines went to the polls that day to choose thousands of local leaders plus national legislators in what is seen as a referendum on the presidency of reformist Benigno Simeón Cojuangco Aquino III. -- AFP
Even usually perceptive analysts have difficulty making such a ground-shaking paradigm adjustment, from assuming that we are engaging in a popular election to understanding that what really takes place is a secret selection. Indeed, it is now effectively useless for drooling candidates or media commentators or independent observers to focus on the results of preference surveys and, relatedly, on the scandals and revelations that can enhance or diminish a particular candidate’s standing in the polls.

Who the people actually vote for no longer counts.

At least that’s how it definitely seems. Since 2009 when it began preparing for the country’s first nationwide automated polls, our Commission on Elections (Comelec) has -- despite vigorous shouts of protest from computer science professionals, academics, and citizens’ groups -- systematically acted to eliminate and disregard the standard computer industry security protocols and other important safeguards that could allow the validation of results and ensure the accuracy and integrity of the outcomes.

Comelec’s actions and decisions make it appear as if its main goal all along was to deliberately create a situation where manipulating election outcomes would be as easy as the proverbial walk in the park. Control of the PCOS (Precinct Count Optical Scanner) voting and counting machines, control of the electronic transmissions, and control of the memory devices were ensconced firmly in the hands of Comelec’s favored system provider (Smartmatic), with no accountability and auditability mechanisms in place or in operation. Dagdag-bawas (literally, add-subtract), the street term for election cheating, is far more efficient done electronically with a computer than the old manual dagdag-bawas where election returns had to be manually altered. Elections can now be stolen in the click of a keystroke.

As implemented by Comelec, our automated election system is almost entirely opaque and there is no way for the candidates, the political parties, the media, or us (the voting public) to verify and validate election results. What this means is that there is no transparency. And transparency is an absolute requirement if an election is to be credible and democratic.

In both the 2010 and the 2013 polls, we voters had no way of telling if our votes were actually counted and if the votes were being accurately tallied. In effect, the Filipino public was required to just take whatever Comelec’s PCOS machines printed out as election results as gospel truth. On faith. Significantly, that faith hasn’t been validated in the instances when it was possible to actually compare the electronic results with a manual recount. Those instances are well documented.

Clearly bent on making sure his un-credible and undemocratic system is entrenched more firmly before he retires next year, Comelec chairman Sixto Brillantes Jr. has now asked Congress for at least P18 billion for the 2016 polls, P10 billion of which will be spent to purchase 121,800 new PCOS machines. At a hearing at the Senate, Electoral Reforms Committee chairman Aquilino Pimentel III pointedly noted that Comelec had not even bothered to submit a report on the state of the 82,000 PCOS machines used in the 2010 and 2013 automated elections and yet it “wants to purchase new machines.” Pimentel also observed, “They are still PCOS, using the same technology... We’d like the Comelec to tell us in a report if it has taken a look at other technologies or systems.”

Actually, as long as Comelec is committed -- as it has demonstrated -- to automated election systems where voting and counting are done electronically and strict computer security protocols are not in place, the choice of technology -- whether this uses optical mark readers or direct recording electronic devices -- hardly matters. Neither offers transparency and affords the voting public the ability to verify and validate the count.

In a manual election, transparency is provided by the fact that ballots are opened in the presence of everyone concerned and counted out in the open. In an automated election, no one can see the ballots being counted (they are inside the machine) or the manner in which they are tallied. Even if candidates’ representatives and poll watchdogs make it a point to stand right there in front of the PCOS machine, there is absolutely nothing to see.

To reiterate, transparency is an absolutely essential requirement in any exercise that aspires to being called a democratic election. Yet, Brillantes and his fellow commissioners do not appear to accept this. In fact, Brillantes and his crew imperiously act as if voters have absolutely no right to demand transparency.

Indeed, because of their recognition of the transparency requirement and the realization that automated election systems simply did not adequately deliver this, over a dozen developed countries -- including Germany, Ireland, and the Netherlands -- who had earlier implemented automated election systems have reverted to a manual system. Illustrative of the thinking behind this, Germany’s Federal Constitutional Court ruled (in March 2009) that the use of voting machines must “meet the constitutional requirements of the principle of the public nature of elections.” The principal basis for this ruling was that “all essential steps of an election... (must be) subject to the possibility of public scrutiny.”

Brillantes and his minions cannot be unaware of these dictums, not only in international law, but in our own election laws. Does their inability to act in accordance with those requirements arise from the fact that they are really only marionettes whose strings are pulled by some mysterious puppet master?

What Comelec is doing has subverted our democracy.

The problems and complexities inherent in an automated election system and the reason they do not provide the transparency we (the public) must demand have been detailed and discussed in two books: (1) Hacking Our Democracy: The Conspiracy To Electronically Control Philippine Elections (2013), by me, published by BusinessWorld; and (2) Was Your Vote Counted? Unveiling the Myths About Philippine Automated Elections (2013), a collection of articles by various academics, computer science experts, IT industry practitioners, and knowledgeable observers, edited by Prof. Bobby Tuazon, published by the Diliman-based policy group CenPEG. Concerned citizens should check these books out and get informed about how we citizens have already been stripped of our most basic democratic right. The books are available at Solidaridad Book Store on Padre Faura and at several National Book Stores.

The point to stress here is that we have to abandon any illusions that our elections are transparent, honest, and reflective of the people’s will. As it stands, our entire election machinery has already been hijacked and fatally compromised. What this means, in practical terms, is that those who think that elections are a viable route to changing our corrupt political leadership are sadly mistaken. Notwithstanding the massive and institutionalized plunder of the people’s money by greedy and colluding politicos, we (the Filipino people) can no longer even vote them out of office.

As CenPEG has noted: “There should be no illusion... that modern technology will guarantee a free election. Who controls the machine controls the votes.”

Dr. René Azurin is a management professor, strategy consultant, and author of several books on government and the economy.