THE London-based International Centre for Parliamentary Studies (ICPS) awarded the Commission on Elections (COMELEC) two major awards in their 2016 International Electoral Awards (IEA), held in Maputo, Mozambique, on December 6, 2016.These awards are the Election Commission of the Year and the Election Management Award. Two minor awards were also given to the COMELEC in recognition of its outstanding achievement in two areas: the Accessibility Award and the Minority Participation Award. These awards are highlighted in the COMELEC and IEA websites (http://awards.electoralnetwork.org/shortlist-2016.php#prettyPhoto) and were published in local broadsheets and international news media several days ago.
The sources stated that the Election Commission of the Year is granted based on the “effort to foster a ‘community of good citizens’ among election practitioners and the search for best practice, evidence-based research and policy in the field of elections” while the Election Management Award is conferred based on handling “country-specific challenges to guarantee a secure, transparent and smooth running of elections.”
The Accessibility Award is in recognition of the poll body’s ensuring that “groups within a society which have been excluded from the electoral process due to physical and geographical obstacles are brought back in the electoral process,” while the recognition for Minority Participation Award is based on the execution of “the rights of minorities to cast their vote and actively participate in the democratic process.”
The sources stated that IEA is an annual event attended by “electoral stakeholders, in recognition of their work and to acknowledge their significant contribution to the democratic process beyond the community of electoral professionals, practitioners and experts.”
In regard to the two major awards won by the poll agency, AES Watch has not observed anything positive in the COMELEC’s “search for best practice, evidence-based research and policy” and in implementing “secure, transparent and smooth-running elections” since the past three national and local elections in 2010, 2013 and 2016. Nothing at all!
AES Watch has relentlessly raised questions about the credibility of the COMELEC in complying with the Automated Election Law (AES), or RA 9369. All the safeguards provided by that law were bypassed by the COMELEC.
But in the most recent national elections, the COMELEC was compelled to conform with one of the safeguards because they were mandated by the Supreme Court. The high court in March 2016 ordered the poll body to generate the voter’s receipt, or the voter-verified paper audit trail using the vote counting machines (VCMs, also known as PCOS machines). Otherwise, the COMELEC would not have implemented the receipt printing in the 2016 elections.
Just to recall the statements of Chairman Bautista at the Joint Congressional Oversight Committee (JCOC) hearing on February 16, 2016, he said: “Definitely there is an advantage of transparency and accuracy if you print the receipt. Here, there are several disadvantages. The first disadvantage is the issue of vote buying…Second is the issue of time;… it will add up five to seven hours to the voting time…one of the challenges of our elections is the long lines, the long queues, …this may dis-incentivize our voters to vote…Number 3, we also know…that there can be discrepancy between how a machine count the vote depending on how the voters shaded the oval…Number 4,…there might be losing candidates who might question the results basically instructing their supporters that when the machine prints out a receipt, regardless of what the receipt says, they would say that it is not correct…That’s why, when the commission en banc deliberated on this matter, the commission en banc voted 7-0 not to enable the feature of printing the receipt. (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oi8I4NIXnTU).”
The printing of the voter’s receipt, therefore, is a simple case of not really conforming to “search for best practice, evidence-based research and policy” but rather a compulsion by the higher court to comply with the AES law.
On the criteria regarding “secure, transparent and smooth running elections,” the COMELEC absolutely defied RA 9369. There were no digital signatures implemented in the past three NLEs! The COMELEC did not comply with RA9369 Section 30 that deals with the authentication of electronically transmitted and digitally signed election results. The election returns (ERs) and certificates of canvass (COCs) should have been authenticated following the certification procedures for electronic signatures as provided in the e-Commerce Law, or RA 8792. That means, the digital signatures of the Board of Canvassers (BOCs) and Board of Election Inspectors (BEIs) should have passed through a system of authentication called public key infrastructure (PKI). The Department of Science and Technology has that PKI facility (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bsPM9kafqv8) which it offered to the COMELEC for both the 2013 and 2016 elections. But the COMELEC remained insistent, just like its wrong understanding of the voter’s receipt, that the VCMs have acceptable “machine” digital signatures. Anyhow, this may be taken up next by the high court to be decided in 2017.
In any case, the COMELEC has accepted the awards, with Chairman Bautista saying that it will inspire them to do better and work harder. However, the COMELEC has no plans yet for 2019 and there has been no JCOC hearing yet since November 9, 2016. The former Senate JCOC Chairman was Senator Koko Pimentel of the 16th Congress and the one who replaced him in the 17th Congress is Senator Leila de Lima.
Be that as it may, AES Watch is not convinced about the awards conferred on the COMELEC by the ICPS in the International Electoral Awards 2016, as the criteria were not met and the event was sponsored by Smartmatic!