• A victory and a challenge

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    It almost went unnoticed. No theatrics. No fanfare. It may have been a small victory, but it is a significant one. Senator Aquilino Pimentel III, Co-chair of the Joint Congressional Oversight Committee on the Automated Election System (JCOC-AES), at a hearing last March 19, 2015, concluded that the weakness of the current automated election system is its lack of transparency.

    Transparency of the automated election processes, or the lack of it, is one of the issues raised against the automated election system used in the 2010 and 2013 national and local elections and planned for use in the 2016 national and local elections.

    Voters never saw how the voting machine or the PCOS recorded their votes. Election watchers never saw how the votes were counted and how the election returns were prepared. At canvassing, election watchers never saw how the election returns as well as the certificates of canvass generated from various levels of canvassing and consolidation were consolidated by the consolidation and canvassing servers at various levels.

    The existing automated election system never met the transparency requirement of Republic Act No. 8436 as amended by Republic Act No. 9369, otherwise known as the Automated Election Law.

    Automation of our elections, as correctly pointed out during the JCOC-AES hearing, has made our elections technology-centric rather than focusing on the exercise of the right to vote and the right to informed elections. The rest of the electoral processes after the voting have all been left to machines.

    Automated election systems may be designed to meet the transparency requirement by exposing the internal processes of the machines. Doing so, however, will impair the speed of vote counting and election results consolidation. And that’s where the trade-offs lie. Transparency versus speed.

    The focus on technology may be shifted by exploring ways how technology can best be used to assist in improving election processes to ensure transparency. For instance, instead of leaving the counting of votes to the voting machine, technology may be used to assist in the vote counting to be conducted by the Board of Election Inspectors. As in any systems development work, a thorough study of existing processes slated for automation should have been done.

    Certainly, some will object to this as this is a way to go back to manual elections where the vote counting, as experience shows, took 5 to 12 hours to complete.

    But in the era of automated elections, the Board of Election Inspectors were simply glad to complete the counting of votes quickly. However, many of them had to stay on till the wee hours of the morning after election day to complete the printing of election returns and to transmit the electronic copy of the election returns to the designated canvassing and consolidation server.

    The appropriate technology solutions may be found. But only if the proper thorough study is conducted.

    The victory on March 19 was short-lived as other issues were raised and discussed. The Automated Election System Watch (AES Watch) had come under attack.

    AESWatch has been at the forefront of monitoring, studying, and watching the Commission on Elections in its adoption of technologies for use in our elections.

    AESWatch is a broad coalition of various election monitoring, non-government, civil society, and professional organizations as well as academe and church-based groups with a mission to promote transparent, credible, secured, and accurate elections.

    AES Watch co-convenors had been invited to various meetings and fora to present its studies and findings on the automated election systems.

    In a manifestation presented to the JCOC-AES, AES Watch stated in part, “We refer to malicious insinuations of former Comelec Chairman Sixto Brillantes, Jr. who, on March 6 linked co-conveners of AES Watch to an alleged ballot theft by some political personalities in their attempt to ‘tarnish’ the 2013 election results. In separate affidavits they signed and submitted to the Comelec law department, Mr. Brillantes and a certain Worthy Acosta, named the AES Watch individual co-conveners to what both concocted as an spaghetti conspiracy lumping several individuals and groups in a plot using a series of fora and alleged ‘propaganda materials’ to tarnish the 2013 election results, henceforth, accusing them altogether as committing ‘election sabotage’.”

    Harassment. That’s what it is. An attempt to stifle the co-convenors’ right to freedom of speech and expression. It is a challenge that AES Watch co-convenors will have to face as they continue in their advocacy work to ensure transparent, credible, secured, and accurate elections.

    We hope the Commission on Elections will not allow itself to be used as an instrument to stifle the exercise of rights guaranteed in the Philippine Constitution.

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