2016 NLE Aftermath: Time to rethink and redesign the AES

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WE have not learned our lessons. It happened during the 2010 national and local elections. It happened again these 2016 national and local elections (NLE). Mark my words—it is bound to happen again in 2019 and in 2022, unless we change our Automated Election System (AES).

The 2010 NLE was plagued with non-functioning and overheating Precinct Count Optical Scan (PCOS) machines, among others. The PCOS machines counted (or miscounted) votes in favor of another candidate, sometimes crediting votes to a candidate who was not even voted at all—thanks to the digital lines courtesy of a dirty Mylar. PCOS machines failed to transmit, even with their touted BGAN (Broadband Global Area Network) portable satellite devices.

In 2010, almost 3 million votes for the vice-president position were considered null or simply not counted. In contrast, the winner for the vice president edged his closest rival by a little over 700,000 votes only. At the start of the Joint Presidential and Vice-Presidential Canvassing, the total number of voters was shown to be 250 million. A Smartmatic-TIM personnel, a Venezuelan, adjusted the “script” in the Congress server and, voila!—the total number of voters became 50 million. Just like that! Smartmatic’s Cesar Flores and Heider Garcia witnessed it. I was told not to look, to turn my back while the Venezuelan tinkered with the server.

Voters were disenfranchised because of invalidated ballots, non-replacement of rejected ballots, and a myriad of other reasons.


This 2016 NLE, the same problems occurred. The Vote Counting Machines (VCM) just conked out and stopped working after a few hours of operations. The VCMs overheated. This clearly proved that these VCMs were not designed for a tropical country like the Philippines.

Voters complained that their voter’s receipt showed different names of candidates that they actually voted for. The vice-presidential race displayed shocking results and elicited charges of electronic “dagdag-bawas” from one camp. On the night of the election, a couple of hours after the closing of polls, while counting is under way, a Smartmatic technician, again a Venezuelan, changed the “script” in the Comelec server, at his own behest and without any authority from anybody. Nobody was told to turn his back because nobody was there. This was initially denied by the perpetrators, but days later both Smartmatic and Comelec admitted that, indeed, the “script” was changed—without witnesses from the stakeholders—to fix an “ñ” bug. Allegedly, this act was ordered by Smartmatic’s Marlon Garcia.

Is this a sort of déjà vu?
Déjà vu is an expression derived from the French, meaning “already seen.” According to Psychology Today, when it occurs, it seems to spark our memory of a place we have already been, a person we have already seen, or an act we have already done.

In the case of our elections, it is indeed a repetition of what happened before—an unauthorized “script,” a sudden change in counting, a Venezuelan IT personnel, Smartmatic and, of course, Comelec.

Add to this a PCOS machine that refused to function and a VCM conking out of service. Disenfranchised voters in 2010 and 2016. Poor and confusing ballot designs in 2010 and 2016. And the list goes on and on. Is it not that the accuracy rate of the machines should be 99.995 percent? What happened to that requirement?

Is it only us who were asking these questions? For the information of everyone, an International Observers Mission (IOM) brought some 15 foreign nationals to observe the 2016 NLE. One of them is Anuschka Ruge, of Germany. Ms. Ruge questioned the quick overheating of the VCMs, which should have been made more resistant to heat since the Philippines is a tropical country. The group asked that new machines be purchased, ones that are able to “withstand atrocious weather.” There were reports that local canvassing bogged down because of connectivity problems, resulting in the failure to electronically transmit Election Returns (ERs). Ms. Ruge said the transmission process should be fixed. “Because if the transmission process is corrupted, the credibility of elections can be questioned,” she added.

What is the point of all of this? All told, and as we all actually experienced and witnessed, the Smartmatic-Comelec partnership fouled up our election system.

Section 10 of Republic Act No. 9369, the Philippine Automated Election Law, unequivocally states that “the system procured must have demonstrated capability and been successfully used in a prior electoral exercise here or abroad.” The VCMs that were used in this year’s elections were all freshly manufactured from China. These are brand new machines—which have not been used in a prior electoral exercise here or abroad. On this score alone, the use of these machines is actually a violation of the law!

Why were there problems, allegedly, in the server’s “script”? If these bugs (circa 2010 and now 2016) were to be accepted in good faith, logic would tell us that the whole AES, peddled by Smartmatic (and happily approved by Comelec) were not fully tested and were not used in a prior election here or abroad. How can it be used in a prior election abroad if some of its “scripts” were not functioning properly?

Section 28 of R.A. No. 9369 punishes anyone who would “tamper with electronic devices or their components used in the AES,” whether or not the said act affects the electoral process or results. Any person convicted for violation of the said act “shall be penalized with imprisonment of eight years and one day to twelve (12) years without possibility of parole.” Somebody has to take the ax for tampering the server’s “script.” Some heads should roll for accepting an AES, which in the first place violated the Terms of Reference for the project and contravened the provisions of R.A. No. 9369.

The AES had been compromised. The results are now doubtful. Everything points to one thing—Smartmatic and Comelec seemingly violated the automated election law, might have betrayed the public trust, and cast doubts on the integrity of the whole election process.

As I recall, I filed a Petition for Mandamus before the Supreme Court to compel the Comelec to take precautionary steps to ensure that no electronic cheating would take place during the 2016 NLE, specifically by submitting an inventory of the MAC (Media Access Control) addresses of all its VCMs, computers, servers, and transmission devices which were used on election day. Likewise, I asked the High Court to direct the Comelec to make a list of all the IP (Internet Protocol) addresses used in its Virtual Private Network, together with their geographical locations, that were used during transmission. Indeed, this might have prevented some shenanigans from thwarting the genuine will of the electorate—for they now recognize that some people already knew how they would cheat electronically.

My Petition served as a model for a subsequent Petition for Mandamus filed before the Supreme Court by one Atty. Al C. Argosino of Kho Malcontento Argosino Law Offices. In his Petition, Atty. Argosino asked the Supreme Court to direct the COMELEC to provide, this time, the International Mobile Subscriber Identity (IMSI) of all the SIM cards and the International Mobile Equipment Identity (IMEI) of all the communication devices used during transmission of election results.

As an American presidential candidate said, “Voting is the most precious right of every citizen, and we have the moral obligation to ensure the integrity of the voting process.” Indeed it is your moral obligation to do so. It is my obligation to expose possible fraud in order to ensure the integrity of the voting process, maybe no longer in the 2016 national and local elections, but in future elections.

Are we ready for change? On Wednesday I will be writing about a redesigned AES.

Al S. Vitangcol III is a member of the Philippine Bar, a registered engineer, and the Philippines’ first EC-Council certified Computer Hacking Forensic Investigator. He holds a masteral degree in Computer Science and was designated head of the Joint IT Forensic Team that investigated the 60 PCOS machines that were found in a house in Antipolo City during the 2010 national and local elections. He served as a resource person both in the Committee on Suffrage hearings at the House of Representatives and at the 2010 Joint Presidential and Vice-Presidential Canvassing. He recently trained several groups in order to help them prevent electoral fraud during the 2016 National and Local Elections.

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2 Comments

  1. Juan T. Delacruz on

    Government should concentrate in upgrading the AES by hiring real computer experts, with some type of credentials to show. Philippines has produced so many brilliant programmers, but the way they designed the AES is shitty. The parameters were not well defined during the development of the AES, because so many loopholes that anything can possibly happen. Of course, hiring a consultant like the author of this article doesn’t come cheap, but the money spent is worth it.

  2. Mark Torres on

    Go! Atty / Engr Vitangcol.

    As a responsible citizens, what should we do now?

    Should we wait for the Anonymous group to expose the shenanigans of the comelec again?