First of two parts
THE country’s automated election system may have hastened the process of canvassing of votes but it has a heinous downside–it has trimmed down the cost of and simplified cheating, according to experts.
Unlike in the past when poll cheaters needed to employ a huge number of people from the precinct level up and spend so much to ensure victory, cheating under an automated environment requires only a handful of “expert operators” to do the job.
In separate interviews with The Manila Times, nuclear scientist Dr. Pelagio Battung, a former Transportation undersecretary; former Commission on Elections (Comelec) Commissioner Augusto “Gus” Lagman; and Votenet Philippines General Secretary Carlo Diño detailed how such can be carried out.
In fact, this high-tech form of cheating has been “mastered” by these so-called “operators” since the system was first introduced in 2008 during the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (ARMM) elections, a dry-run for the fully automated 2010 national and local polls.
According to Lagman, cheating through the vote-counting machines (VCMs), formerly known as the Precinct Count Optical Scan (PCOS) machines, is not as complicated as the cheating during manual elections because a candidate only needs to hire an “election operator” who has links with some technical personnel in Smartmatic, the technology provider.
The former Comelec official said the easiest way to manipulate outcome of the electoral exercise is though the CF (compact flash) cards because these cards contain election results that will be transmitted by the VCMs after the polls.
“If ballot-box switching is possible in the past, what more for CF cards, which can fit inside any pocket and [be]pass[ed]around secretly,” Lagman added.
He, however, pointed out, that such form of election cheating is only for local fights.
Lagman noted that during the 2013 mid-term elections, a number of local candidates from governor, mayor and district representatives had told him that there are “operators” who approached them–ensuring their victory–in exchange for cash.
The operators were asking candidates for congressman P20 to P30 million and P50 million for candidates running for mayor.
The candidates approached Lagman because they want to know if it is possible to cheat the automated election system.
“I think it’s true all it takes is an experienced election operator who knows the ins and outs of elections and a computer technician under the employ of Smartmatic before who knows how the system works,” he said.
Cheating can be carried out before the VCMs start transmitting the votes.
A technician can replace a CF card used by a machine with another card that contains different data.
Lagman said 23 percent of PCOS machines in 2013 failed to transmit and the Board of Elections Inspectors (BEI) called a computer technician to fix the problem.
If that technician is connected to an election operator, the former Comelec commissioner added, he can easily replace the CF card installed in a PCOS machine with a pre-filled card containing different results while in the process of fixing the machine.
Battung echoed Lagman’s observations, saying VCM machines are not “slaves” which, in information technology parlance, means that the machines “think on their own.”
“Because [a]VCM or PCOS [machine]is not a slave, it is prone to manipulation. Instead of simply reading a particular name and add[ing]it to the tally, the machine is designed to be confused. In fact, a simple watermark such as from saliva or sweat can spoil [an]entire ballot. This can be done at the precinct level, where operators of a particular candidate may pretend to assist people who voted for the other candidate[s],” he explained.
In First World countries, he said the VCMs used are slaves.
“By slave, I mean the machines have no memory unlike ours, which have CF cards which, again, are highly prone to manipulation by people who are experts in IT,” Battung said.
In previous elections, he noted, many votes cast were voided by the PCOS machines for a number of reasons, including smudging and simple misreads.
“The VCM memory can be commanded to read a vote differently to favor any favored candidate. If the CF cards are switched, the VCM may not be able to read it at all,” Battung said.
Like Lagman, the former government official claimed that there are now groups offering their services in exchange for a huge sum of money.
“These people have connections from down below to those working for Smartmatic. They can promise ‘zero’ vote for a rival candidate. They are part of a syndicate who can operate in local precincts,” Battung said.
Dino, meanwhile, said the Comelec should fully implement required security provisions of the Automated Election System.
Votenet Philippines, which is engaged in voter education, claimed there had been reports from various sectors since the 2010 and 2013 elections that many technical issues riddled the PCOS system implemented by Smartmatic for Comelec.
“The security provisions in the Election Automation Law that were intended to make the election process transparent were disabled during those elections. This placed the results of those two elections under a huge cloud of doubt,” Diño said.
The Comelec’s perceived failure to fully implement the security features prescribed in Republic Act (RA) 9369 or the Election Automation Law was the most likely source of these issues.
The group fears that the 2016 elections will be a repeat of the previous automated elections.
“We are concerned that the Comelec will violate the law once again and not fully implement the law for the 2016 elections. We believe that this will make the elections vulnerable to manipulation and fraud, just as they had been in 2010 and 2013,” Diño said.
“If evil, unscrupulous people gain control of the system and manipulate the results in even just a few vote counting machines, the sacred votes of the Filipino people will not be accurately counted, and the will of the people will be violated,” he added.
“This is not just a legal issue. This is a moral issue for the people of faith represented in the FAITH.e Coalition,” Dino said.
Faith.e coaliton is an inter-faith group formed early this month thatadvocates clean and honest elections.
It stands for Fairness, Accuracy, Integrity, Transparency and Honesty in Elections and is composed of Catholic, Protestant, Evangelical and Muslim leaders.
According to Diño, these security features include a voter-verifiable paper audit trail, the implementation of a random manual audit after the polls, and the use of digital signatures of Board of Election Inspectors.
Another security feature was ballot verification using ultra-violet detectors, as well as a source code review that will allow more interested parties to participate.
“[I]f the source code review is not done properly, and computer codes that may miscount the votes are incorporated in the program [whether done erroneously or intentionally], then there is a possibility that the votes cast will not be properly counted by the program,” Diño said.
An ultraviolet detector, if implemented, will serve as a check against fake ballots.
“[P]rogramming error in item (a) may be caught during the elections if the Voter-Verifiable Paper Audit Trail (VVPAT) is implemented. Votes cast by the voter can be compared to the votes counted by the machines as evidenced by the ‘receipt.’ If the VVPAT is not implemented, there is no way to determine if the votes were counted accurately,” Diño explained.
He said a random manual audit where results from the vote-counting machines are compared with a manual tally of votes cast will ensure that the votes are properly tabulated.
Further, Diño added, there had been indications in previous elections that the tally of votes of particular precincts were transmitted not by the PCOS machines in the precinct but by another machine, similar to what Dr. Battung had mentioned.
“It is possible the votes were counted properly but were not transmitted to the canvassing system, and manufactured tallies from another PCOS machine were transmitted and canvassed instead. To make sure this does not happen in 2016, Comelec must strictly implement the digital signature process of the teachers/Board of Election Inspectors prior to transmission so we can trace if the transmission truly came from the right PCOS machine,” he said.
In order for the votes to truly reflect the people’s decision, Votenet Philipines recommended that Comelec “simply obey the law” and implement the safeguards prescribed by the Election Automation Law.
To be concluded