GUS LAGMAN

BEFORE answering that question, let us first examine the automated election system employed during the last three elections (2010, 2013 and 2016) in the Philippines.

The first step was the usual voting period (manual); the second, the vote counting at the precincts (automated); the third, the transmission of the results (electronic); and the fourth, the three-level canvassing/consolidation — at the municipality, provincial and national levels (automated).

The voting period, because it was manual, could, of course, be trusted. And the activity was also something that voters could see and fully understand, so no particular concern in this step.

The automated vote-counting was, however, not witnessed by the voters; it was the machine into which the ballots were fed that did the counting (secretly, as a consequence). “Unobservable vote-counting is inherently insane,” according to the authors of the book, Code Red. It is a must, they argue, that voters be able to watch the counting of their votes; otherwise, it would be difficult to expect them to trust the results.

Technically, it was the machine software that did the actual counting. And that software was developed by the machine provider — Smartmatic, a foreign company with a not-too-confidence-building reputation in the election world. It is therefore a group of foreigners that has been counting our votes. Can we trust them? I leave that to the readers to determine.

Is it possible for the Comelec to rig the results of this automated elections? Of course! Is it possible for Smartmatic to rig the results of automated elections? Of course! I’m not saying that they did, nor that they will. All I’m saying is that it’s possible — easy, in fact — especially if done by insiders; and nobody will be the wiser, because the voters won’t know…and they won’t see. That nontransparency, in the context of elections, is of course totally unacceptable.

The transmission of the precinct results (election returns, or ER) to the board of canvassers was done electronically. As such, it was again a step that was not witnessed by the voters.

During the earlier meetings of the joint congressional oversight committee (JCOC), it was revealed that the data being transmitted first passes through what they refer to as the “meet me room,” where they are parked for a period before being deleted, which apparently is a violation of the election law, RA 9369. That law says that the election returns should go directly from the precincts to the city/municipal board of canvassers. In fact, there is no mention at all of a “meet me room” in the law. It was just a creation of the system provider — Smartmatic.

Even worse, the transmission of the data from municipal to provincial and from provincial to national canvassing apparently also passes through the “meet me room.” If there is any intention of rigging the results, that “room” seems to be the most convenient place to do it.

There are far too many vulnerabilities in the Smartmatic system, but the worst part, in my opinion, is the automation of precinct-counting. When precinct-counting is automated, transparency is thrown out the window. That step should never be automated, mainly because its results — in the very first step — serve as the basis, the control totals, for the remaining steps in the entire election process.

After the manual precinct-counting, when all interested parties already have a copy of the election returns, which they can then use to predict the outcome of canvassing at all levels, the remaining steps — transmission and the three levels of canvassing — can safely be automated.

In summary, it is the hybrid system which is most ideal. Manual voting, manual precinct-counting, electronic transmission, and automated canvassing. Compared to the Smartmatic system employed in 2010, 2013 and 2016, the hybrid system should only take longer by about 12 to 24 hours. Certainly worth the billions of pesos that could be saved. But even more important, it is completely transparent and therefore much more difficult to rig.

And here’s a bonus: the Comelec need only buy PCs and PC servers — items that can be bought from vendors in any big city in the country. After each election, the Comelec, at its option, can sell those machines at a discount, or donate them to the Department of Education. They can then just purchase a new set before each election. No obsolescence and maintenance of equipment to worry about; no warehousing/storage to spend precious money on.

But, going back to the question, can we trust automated elections? Yes, if only the transmission and canvassing are automated; no, if precinct-counting is automated.