Issues hound the AES 2016


SEEN through a political lens, the recently held 2016 local and national elections are regarded as generally peaceful and orderly. The exercise started promptly with 92,509 of new version PCOS machines, renamed Vote Counting Machine or VCM, being started up in as many clustered precincts nationwide and the Board of Election Inspectors started to welcome voters.

The VCM includes a larger screen with which information on how the machine “interprets” the marks on a voter’s ballot is displayed. The feature, however, was not used as the VCMs were configured to display the information only for less than a second. After a flash of a display, the voter’s ballot was automatically cast, depriving the voter of the opportunity to correct marks on his ballot that the VCM might have deemed to be not properly made. This was followed by the printing of the voter verified paper audit trail, laymanized as voter receipt.

Reports of VCM malfunctions started to trickle in mid-morning, causing a wait time of two to three hours, or with some voters simply giving up their chance to vote. At the end of day, close to 2,400 VCMs were reported to have malfunctioned. Close to 200 machines were replaced. In comparison, around 1,850 PCOS malfunctions were reported in the 2013 elections.

There were claims of failed canvassing and consolidation system laptops—about 30 of them—which had to be recalled, reconfigured, and redeployed.

There were also reports of pre-LAT or logic-accuracy test results reflected in canvassing and consolidation reports, which caused some boards of canvassers to reconvene to upload the correct entries, regenerate and reprint the reports, and electronically transmit the same.

The canvassing process at the National Board of Canvassers in Congress involved consideration of the electronically transmitted Certificates of Canvass (COCs) to be compared with printed COCs from each province, independent city, and the Overseas Absentee Voting Centers. The Election Automation Law (EAL), Republic Act No. 8436—amended by Republic Act No. 9369—provides for a technical requirement: that the COC be digitally signed. The EAL further provides that the electronically transmitted and digitally signed COC shall be the basis of proclamation of winning candidates. It appears that many of the electronically transmitted COC were not signed digitally, as the General Instructions for the Boards of Canvassers does not provide for digital signing. The General Instructions, too, do not provide for a process of electronic authentication of election reports, which the EAL provides.

Concerns were also raised with the unusually high under-vote counts—about 1.2 million in the presidential contest and about 2.9 million in the vice-presidential contest.

What rocked the vote counting process was the unauthorized introduction of a program script in the transparency server by Smartmatic’s Marlon Garcia while the whole automated election system (AES) was in operation. Claimed to be a cosmetic change only, the script is said to have enabled the proper display and/or printing of the Spanish letter “ñ” in the names of some candidates.

The incursion was not the first in Smartmatic’s involvement in the conduct of elections in the country. In 2008, Smartmatic reportedly remotely accessed the canvassing and consolidation server in Wao, Lanao del Sur, to correct the number of voters allowed to vote in a voting precinct. In 2010, Smartmatic, admitting to a programming error, had to correct the number of registered voters nationwide while both Houses of Congress were jointly convened as the National Board of Canvassers for the 2010 presidential and vice-presidential contests. In 2013, following the announcement by the Parish Pastoral Council for Responsible Voting that it had counted 12 million votes within the first two hours from closing of polls, an improbable number, Smartmatic reportedly made a correction in the transparency server, revealing in the process the existence ofr an intermediary server, the function of which was never disclosed.

While the Commission on Elections declared that Smartmatic’s Marlon Garcia broke protocol and that an investigation into the matter will be conducted, the incident again revealed the active participation of Smartmatic, a foreign company, in the operations of the AES.

The incursion raised charges of vote manipulation and cast a cloud of doubt on the integrity of the AES and the credibility of the election results. Particularly questioned were the vote counts between vice-presidential candidates, Sen. Ferdinand Marcos, Jr. and Camarines Sur Rep. Leny Robredo. Marcos initially led in the contest until his incremental leads started to slow down, and Robredo’s vote counts started closing in. Robredo won the contest.

Let’s face IT. Smartmatic has been supplying the AES used in Philippine elections. Yet, problems continue to hound the system. But what is more glaring is Smartmatic’s active participation in the operations of the AES. While the recent elections are regarded as generally peaceful and orderly, the poll body appears not to the ready to fully operate and manage an AES.


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