• Is electoral reform now even possible?

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    A SAYING goes: “It’s not the people who vote that count; it’s the people who count the votes.” This has been attributed (probably mistakenly) to the Russian dictator Joseph Stalin.

    Notwithstanding its authorship, that statement captures perfectly the nature of elections in many so-called “democratic” countries.

    In the Philippines, the computerized polls of 2010, 2013, and 2016 offer excellent illustrations of how the “counters” matter more than the voters. In those elections, Filipino voters had no way of telling or verifying what exactly the voting and counting machines were doing. Vital security protocols that could protect the system from manipulation were deliberately disabled and the results raised serious doubts about the integrity of the machine-generated returns.

    As implemented by our Commission on Elections, our computerized elections have clearly not been transparent, secure, or honest. Indeed, all the decisions and actions of the Comelec through three different sets of commissioners—from the 2010 elections through the 2016 polls—seem directed precisely at eliminating transparency, disabling security protocols, and dismissing the need for auditable accuracy. Smartmatic’s main champion through the three sets of commissioners was Comelec Executive Director Jose Tolentino, Jr., for a time suspended for the anomalously overpriced ballot secrecy folder deal.

    Comelec’s relationship with system supplier Smartmatic International, Inc. has been suspicious from the outset. In the bidding for the 2010 elections, the then-Comelec commissioners headed by retired Supreme Court justice Jose Melo obviously tailored the bid specifications and terms of reference to virtually exclude every other bidder, except this obscure Venezuelan firm “with reported US connections.” Additionally, they agreed to one of the “sweetest” payment terms ever and overlooked or simply ignored all of Smartmatic’s performance delays and spec violations without ever even suggesting that Smartmatic be penalized for these. Since 2010, it has been abundantly clear that the Comelec-Smartmatic relationship was not that of the normal client-supplier kind and that Smartmatic was the dominant partner in this dubious relationship.

    It must be emphasized that the Smartmatic system pushed by Comelec deliberately disregarded most of the security features and safeguards, specifically provided for by our Automated Election System Law (Republic Act 9369) and the country’s Omnibus Election Code. Furthermore, Smartmatic was patently unqualified to bid for the project in the first place since it was merely a reseller and Comelec’s own Bidding Specifications and Terms of Reference required, among other things, that the bidder be the owner of both the hardware and the software that it proposed to supply.

    The 2010 computerized polls were a disaster on a nationwide level, with glitches, failures, and anomalies observed and reported by citizens’ poll watchdog groups that included national organizations of IT experts. The documented anomalies included numerous machine malfunctions, suspicious transmission failures, critically mismatched date and time stamps, erroneous certificates of canvass in at least 57 provinces, and wrong entries in the total number of voters and votes cast.

    With the retirement of Melo, then-President Benigno Aquino 3rd appointed election lawyer Sixto Brillantes, Jr. as the new Comelec chairman. Brillantes—who had been Aquino’s election lawyer from 1998 to 2010 and whose firm was in the midst of collecting P8 million from Smartmatic on behalf of a client—clearly reveled in his new role and immediately demonstrated that he was hell-bent on perpetuating the defect-riddled Smartmatic system. Notwithstanding the already discovered system flaws and all the failures and anomalies observed and reported during the conduct of the 2010 polls, Brillantes was obviously committed to institutionalizing a faulty automated election system. Against the strongly-voiced objections of IT experts (including the technical experts in Comelec’s own Advisory Board) and knowledgeable observers, the Comelec board chaired by Brillantes forced through the exercise of an option to purchase the 82,000 Smartmatic voting and counting machines, which had previously only been leased for the 2010 exercise. This effectively tied the country to Smartmatic’s faulty automated election system for years to come.

    Brillantes’s decisions and actions—not to mention his overbearing demeanor—strongly suggested that he was a leading participant in a conspiracy to make the results of all the country’s future elections capable of being effortlessly rigged by a select few and possibly sold to the highest bidders or dispensed to pre-selected candidates.

    When Andres Baustista, former dean of the Far Eastern University Institute of Law, was appointed Comelec chairman in May 2015 by Aquino when the term of Brillantes ended, many somewhat naïve observers hoped that the former academic might disentangle Comelec’s distinctly unholy alliance with its foreign supplier Smartmatic and restore some measure of openness and integrity into our defective and untransparent automated election system. That hope was initially nurtured when Bautista made the right noises, pledged “cleaner elections,” and launched a charm initiative to try and offset Brillantes’s arrogant and offensive manner.

    Sadly, after barely two months of pretending to listen to the suggestions of IT experts and critical observers of the 2010 and 2013 automated elections, and after pretending to consider two better—more secure and more transparent—systems that had been developed by local software engineers, Bautista was singing an old familiar tune. Using as justification that tired excuse “time is of the essence,” he announced a decision to hand over to Smartmatic a contract to supply—via lease—93,977 new voting and counting machines for the 2016 elections. With a straight face, Bautista claimed that this decision was “the most prudent approach,” considering the factors of “costs, timeliness, and technical risks,” and would best ensure that the May 2016 automated elections would be a “credible” one. The amount of the new contract would be P8.4 billion. (The original machines were leased from Smartmatic in 2009 for P7.2 billion and then foolishly purchased—through an option to purchase clause—in 2012 for P2.1 billion, whereupon the machines were warehoused at a cost of P9.6 million a year.)

    The Bautista decision was the denouement of a tiresome cliché-riddled zarzuela [a musical play, often comical]—beginning soon after the 2013 elections—wherein the Comelec Bids and Awards Committee disqualified Smartmatic twice and reinstated it twice, after disqualifying all other bidders.

    In making this reportedly unanimous decision, Bautista and his complicit fellow commissioners were preempting any Supreme Court ruling on cases pending before it regarding Smartmatic. Several cases had been filed by various parties essentially seeking the nullification of Comelec contracts with Smartmatic and its outright blacklisting for having failed to meet even minimum system specifications and for assorted other transgressions of law.

    Weighing in, presumably to put pressure on the Supreme Court, Malacañang quickly issued a statement that the Comelec decision to favor Smartmatic with yet another contract “fulfilled its mandate of ensuring orderly and credible elections.” This made clear the level to which the Comelec-Smartmatic conspiracy to control Philippine elections reached: all the way to the top. It was not, therefore, unexpected that the Supreme Court effectively ignored all such contra-Smartmatic petitions.

    To add to the difficulties of fighting the Comelec-Smartmatic conspiracy, the media blitzkrieg was a major weapon in the battle for control of Philippine elections. It is not a big secret in media circles that Smartmatic offered “grants” to certain columnists and journalists for “research” into whatever. Bribes, in other words. This media effort was ratcheted up several notches whenever there was serious criticism of Comelec-Smartmatic’s conduct of our automated elections. As if in sync, several columnists with little knowledge of computer technology would write curiously similar pieces defending Comelec and Smartmatic from any attacks by critical poll watchdogs and IT professionals. Seemingly plagiarizing each other, these paid hacks would offer poorly reasoned opinions that contradicted reputable computer science professors and well-known information technology experts who issued detailed analyses and reports that characterized the Smartmatic system as flawed, faulty, and unsecure, and Comelec’s reported results as questionable and unverifiable.

    To be clear, what our supposedly independent Comelec has done is deprive the Filipino public of its basic democratic right to free and transparent elections. By systematically eliminating all the IT security protocols, safeguards, and processes that might allow voters to verify and ensure that their votes are counted accurately in a computerized election, the Smartmatic-loving Comelec officials and their patrons have made certain that the automated elections would be completely opaque and that the Filipino people would be made blissfully oblivious to the deceptions being foisted on them.

    As implemented by Comelec, there is no way for the candidates, the political parties, the media, and the voting public to verify, validate, and audit election results. What this means is that there is no transparency. That violates what is called “the public nature of elections.” Transparency is an absolute requirement if an election is to be credible and democratic.

    The point that needs to be stressed here is that any illusions that our nation’s computerized elections have been transparent, honest, and reflective of the people’s will must be abandoned. As it stands, the country’s entire election machinery has been hijacked and is fatally compromised.

    The Filipino voter no longer counts. Only those who control the “counters” (or counting machines) count.

    So, is electoral reform now even possible? Without the Filipino people removing their blinders, shedding their complacency, and rising up in outrage at this trampling of a citizen’s most basic democratic right, the answer is an angry NO.

    Dr. René B. Azurin is a management professor, strategy consultant, and author of several books on government and the economy. He has been a policy consultant for several important government departments.

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