"This is a great achievement for our democracy after the terrible decades of manual elections."
After the dust settles following one impassioned and combative elections, the Commission on Elections, sitting as the National Board of Canvassers, finished tallying the certificates of canvass on Wednesday, just more than a week after the May 13 polls. The proclamation of the winning senators and party-list representatives wrapped up a bruising campaign period that saw the country absorbed over a range of controversial issues.
And right up to the end, the usual political noise and allegations of cheating (mostly from the losing side) continued to hound the conduct of the polls was a dominant theme in the news. In particular, what really took place during the seven-hour glitch in the transparency server at the start of canvassing became the subject of much speculation.
For their part, Parish Pastoral Council for Responsible Voting national chairman Myla Villanueva assured the public that its team of IT experts is already examining whether the system was tampered with by an external hand and other similar security issues that need to be cleared.
According to an initial investigation, however, the team has yet to establish any such intervention. She explained: “The arrival stamps listed in the transparency server logs matched the time stamps of the election results files provided by the transparency server. And they indicated that results were being transmitted through the period from 6:15 p.m. on May 13 to 1:18 a.m. on May 13.”
Data from an application that PPCRV developed to scrape data from the Comelec Public Access website and those in the transparency server also matched, she said.
Election lawyer Emil Marañon III, who specializes in automated election litigation and consulting, emphasized that the transparency servers, while an important safeguard mechanism, offered real-time but unofficial results as the transmission there bypasses the ladderized canvassing required by law and that is usually delayed by three days or so.
He explained that the seven-hour glitch in the transparency server prevented third parties, such as media entities, election watchdogs, and political parties, from downloading the data even as the server continues to receive them from all over the country. This also meant an interruption in the reporting of the results at the crucial time during election night.
Other safeguards are in place, Marañon said, in case the hiccup in the transparency server proved to be an opportunity for parties to manipulate the results of the elections. This includes the Comelec server itself, which receives a separate transmission, as well as 30 physical copies of election returns printed before and after transmission.
He explained: “So if the VCM transmitted 999 votes for Candidate A and all 3 servers received 999, then regardless of the seven-hour blindness, it is proof that results were not compromised during transmission. But if the transparency server suddenly credits Candidate A with 1,200 or even just 1,000, a single vote discrepancy in a single precinct would be evidence of vulnerability or tampering.”
And to assure that, the routine Random Manual Audit, meant to ensure that the automated canvassing reflected the votes in the actual ballots, is in place. It began on May 15 and is currently ongoing at the Diamond Hotel with watchdog Legal Network for Truthful Elections. Comelec even said recently the audit period is likely going to be extended beyond the initial two-week period due to the sheer number of ballots to be audited and to ensure the quality of the process.
“We did not anticipate that it would take long for the audit teams to [process] 500-plus ballots; some even reaching 900, and a precinct takes two days to complete on average, said Comelec Commissioner Lito Guia.
Guia added: “The audit supervisors are partly volunteers from Lente and accountants from the Philippine Institute of Public Accountants, who are there even until midnight to ensure the integrity of the RMA process.”
Not to say that process was perfect, but a cursory comparison with the elections in 2010, 2013, and 2016 would reveal that the much-discussed seven-hour delay sadly eclipsed the triumph of the recent polls: the transmission speed 10 hours after precincts close was a record 92.12 percent of precincts. This represents an improvement compared to the 58.95, 73.16, and 87.05 percent recorded in 2010, 2013, and 2016, respectively.
Even the record level of transparency in this year’s polls were overshadowed by the various creative speculations surrounding the delay. For instance, from the get-go, the Comelec for the first time allowed election observers to witness the server being locked down and re-zeroed following final testing and sealing. For the first time, too, the commission released zero votes to accredited groups upon server initialization.
And when the server malfunctioned, the Comelec allowed media to even stream the debugging process live online, in front of watchdogs and other observers, in order to dispel any speculation of behind-the-scenes rigging.
With such number of safeguards in place, it is more productive to redirect our collective indignation away from the automated process and to the reports of vote-buying, overspending, and election-related violence that took place ahead of and during the midterm polls. With the process itself routinely proving itself to be secure, accurate, and most of all credible, the government needs to institute measures to prevent the pre-election cheating of guns-goons-and-gold politicians.
The bottom-line in the 2019 polls is that, all political noise and creative speculations aside, it was a credible and successful democratic exercise. Investigations into the allegations or suspicions around the glitches and delays are in order, but pending the results of those, any blanket censure of the process is a disservice to the Comelec and the many men and women on the ground who worked tirelessly to make the polls as efficient as it is now. A great achievement for our democracy after the terrible decades of manual elections.