Bishops take Comelec to task

Strategic Perspective
René B. Azurin

Posted on January 31, 2013

CONCERNED ABOUT the documented defects and deficiencies in the Smartmatic automated election system that our Commission on Elections seems inexplicably bound to, the Catholic Bishops Conference of the Philippines (CBCP) has issued a pastoral letter that called on Comelec “to adequately address the issues and respond... to the studies of technical experts on the alleged deficiencies of the present system and technology of automated elections.”

At their semi-annual plenary assembly last weekend, the bishops listened to presentations from both critics of the Smartmatic system — led by the multisector citizens’ coalition AES Watch (that includes IT industry groups and academics) and Tanggulang Demokrasya (TanDem) — and its defenders from Comelec — principally the Comelec commissioners and executive director Jose Tolentino, Jr. (one of the officials who had previously been suspended over the anomalous Ballot Secrecy Folders deal in 2010 wherein Comelec bought cardboard folders for the astronomical price of 380 per folder). After, the bishops released their formal statement, pointedly stressing, “Election is not a matter of speed but of trustworthiness and honesty. If not properly addressed the present automated election system can lead to wholesale cheating. The integrity of a pillar of our democracy — the election — is at stake.” Indeed. The bishops added, “There can be no transparency in elections if the Comelec itself is not transparent.” (Which, as I have repeatedly pointed out in this space, Comelec is anything but.)

Speaking for AES Watch was Philippine Computer Society president Edmundo Casiño, with contributions from Ateneo University computer science professor Dr. Pablo Manalastas and (UP-based) Center for People Empowerment in Governance (CenPEG) executive director Evita Jimenez. The approximately 45-minute presentation explained to the assembled prelates the implications of Comelec’s scrapping (in gross violation of our automated election law) of security features like the digital signature requirement, the ultraviolet authentication of ballots, and the voter verification requirement. These were supported by examples of “compelling evidence of electoral fraud” in 2010, such as “the unauthorized wireless transmission of electronic election returns to canvassing and consolidation servers... the unauthorized scanning of ballots and recording of votes before the elections [called “pre-loading”]... the bloated number of registered voters [256 million instead of 51 million] during national canvass... the blatantly inaccurate voting results in the Comelec website... (and) the flawed random manual audit.” The presentation charged the Comelec with having “breached the people’s trust to safeguard their votes, uphold the rule of law, and tell the truth.”

The strong message of the AES Watch/TanDem presentation was that the Filipino people “CANNOT trust the present Comelec, and CANNOT trust Smartmatic now and in the future, and SHOULD NOT entrust our democracy to the PCOS of Comelec / Smartmatic” [emphasis theirs]. Said they further in unequivocally emphatic terms, “Because of the way the 2010 elections were conducted and the way preparations for the 2013 elections are being carried out, democracy is in mortal danger in our country.” Exactly.

In contrast, the Comelec presentation lamely glossed over the crucial issues, refused to directly answer the questions raised, and discussed mainly their schedule of activities. The main point Comelec seemed content to make — an irrelevant one in the light of all the unresolved problems — was that they are still on time for the May 13 elections. Well, because it simply has no acceptable responses to the most fundamental questions that have to be answered about its chosen automated election system, Comelec has adopted a policy of stonewalling and pretending not to hear what every knowledgeable observer has been saying. Transparency is clearly not a quality that Comelec officials espouse. Incidentally, the Comelec presentation was done by the supposed-to-be-suspended Director Tolentino, a significantly noticed fact that prompted several bishops to quietly ask why he was still in Comelec.

In a related development, also last weekend, Comelec conducted what it claimed to be a “field testing” of Smartmatic’s PCOS [Precinct Count Optical Scanner] machines. Originally supposed to be open to media and the public, Comelec suddenly announced (two days before the scheduled event) that “members of the media would not be allowed to observe” because the so-called field testing was “an internal activity.” Uh, how come? Why the heck would the field testing of voting and counting machines be such a secret process? What is Comelec and its beloved Smartmatic hiding? What are they afraid we might see?

Absolutely aghast about this, AES Watch wrote a formal letter to Comelec (delivered on January 25, 2013), saying, “If this [the field testing] remains an exclusive exercise... it would be tantamount to denying transparency and participation from the public. On the other hand, the announcement did not come as a surprise anymore since... citizens’ watchdogs have already been immune to the agency’s [Comelec’s] lack of transparency with regard to access and disclosure of public documents regarding strict compliance with technical standards and the minimum requirements of the Poll Automation Law.” In fact, this latest decision of Comelec only adds substance to the already spreading conviction that a Comelec-Smartmatic conspiracy has been hatched to electronically manipulate and control Philippine elections.

AES Watch added, “As in previous exercises for the May 2013 polls, the testing on January 26, 2013 is being done by the Comelec under questionable circumstances surrounding the contracted PCOS election technology of Smartmatic, to wit: 1) The real owner of the election technology, Dominion Voting Systems (DVS), has terminated its license to Smartmatic effective May 23, 2012, thereby denying Smartmatic any authority to use the same PCOS technology used in the 2010 polls for the next May 2013 elections; 2) Critical programming errors found in the PCOS machines used in 2010 remain and cannot be corrected or enhanced and modified without the owner’s authority.” The important question is then raised, “Is not Comelec aware that, without the license, Smartmatic is not authorized ‘to effectively service, modify, or enhance’ the PCOS technology and correct programming errors?” Well, there are none so deaf as those who will not hear. So what mysterious software is Smartmatic going to install in our voting and counting machines? Abangan.

The collective lament articulated in AES Watch’s letter is, “We have submitted our official reports containing these findings validated during and after the [2010] election by hard data — documented cases of counting inaccuracies, absence of vital safeguards, mismatch of recorded and transmitted votes, illogical date and time stamps, wrong number of registered voters, incomplete data of votes on the law-mandated Comelec official website, and other nationwide technical glitches — which today have not been substantially refuted by Smartmatic and Comelec. Either the findings and advice were belittled and deemed irrelevant or these were totally ignored/dismissed altogether by both Smartmatic and Comelec officials.”

Then this: “We are aware that AES Watch, a broad coalition of more than 40 major national watchdogs and study centers monitoring poll automation, is up against a powerful conglomerate of election operators that in the final analysis would have their way of running elections again in May 2013.” There, they said it. The heart of the matter. We can ignore this warning — and that of the bishops — and just watch our democracy (such as it is) slip away in a few keystrokes of code.