Groups suggest ways to make automated elections work credibly

MANILA -Will your vote count? Can a new president and a new set of officials be credibly elected on May 10? With less than two months before the election, doubts persist as to whether the Commission on Elections (Comelec) is adequately prepared to make the first ever automated elections system (AES) in the Philippines reliable, accurate and trustworthy. Comelec Chairman Jose Melo, in a visit to Tacloban City, dismissed as "pure fantasy" these doubts and its possible end result, which is failure of elections.

"Faith is what the Comelec wants us to have, but they also seem to be telling us to forget about the details," said Alfredo Pascual, convener and spokesperson of Automated Election System Watch (AES Watch).

And there appears to be too many questionable flaws in the details of the preparations for AES that "other countries would not dare do what the Comelec has been doing in the Philippines," said Bobby Tuazon, director for policy studies of the Center for People Empowerment in Governance (CENPEG).

Real Big Problems with Comelec's AES

"We are not concocting anything. What we're saying is based on the Comelec's reports itself," said Alfredo Pascual. His group is one of the six groups of election watchdogs, IT experts and church-based organizations who pressed the alarm last march 22 over the high probability of the occurrence of a failure of election and commission of massive fraud during the May 10 elections.

Composed of Automated Election System Watch (AES Watch), National Movement for Free Elections (NAMFREL), Kontra Daya (Against Cheating), De La Salle University-Caucus, National Secretariat for Social Action (NASSA) and the Center for People Empowerment in Governance (CenPeg), the groups' warnings spring mainly from how the Comelec is going about its preparations for AES in the Philippines. And from the way President Arroyo has been behaving, added the Kontra Daya.

Arroyo is perceived to be strengthening her control over the House of Representatives as well as the Supreme Court, bolstering suspicions that she is bent on holding on to power after her term ends on June. She is running for a Congressional seat, and, according to critics, seems intent on becoming prime minister after a planned shift toward a parliamentary system of government through amending the 1987 Constitution after May.

All the concerned groups clarified that they "still want the AES to work" and that they are not against AES, but the Comelec is "hard-headed and is loathe to taking in suggestions to make the elections more credible," said Father Joe Dizon.

The groups decried how the Comelec has not only been habitually ignoring suggestions from well-meaning experts, it has also been violating many crucial requirements set forth by the AES law itself. These violations render the AES vulnerable to systematic tampering.
According to Alfredo Pascual, the AES law requires that 90 days before the elections there should be a certification stating that the automated elections system is operating properly and accurately. But the "semblance of certification we got approximately 90 days before the election, meaning the one issued by the Technical Evaluation Committee (TEC) on February 9, didn't say much," said Pascual.

"Of the six requirements for the preparations, three have yet to be complied with," he explained. "How can you certify something that is yet to come?" asked Pascual. In fact, he said, the certification issued recently only said "it can," not "it is," in terms of readiness to operate.
He further explained that there are "many lapses" in the bases used by the Technical Evaluation Committee (TEC) for certifying the AES' readiness to operate. For instance, "they claimed the field testing was a success but it had actually encountered many glitches," said Pascual.

The mock elections held by Comelec also had many failings. "If in a small scale (scenario) they were not able to make the system work, how much more when we talk of 82,000 clustered precincts in all imaginable conditions in the Philippines?" Pascual asked.

The verifiability of the source code or software running the machine and the votes counted, canvassed and transmitted also remained doubtful, said Pascual. There has been no credible review of the source code. And worryingly, the Comelec has decided to do away with digital signatures of BEIs when they transmit results.

Modest Suggestions, Last-Ditched Efforts to make AES Credible
From the six mentioned concerned groups, the following are some "simple suggestions" the Comelec can do to raise confidence in AES:

  • Since the Comelec didn't allow a system review of the source code by other independent groups, let them "disclose fully the report on its own system review." What exactly are the "findings on major weaknesses" stated in the TEC report? And what are the "compensating mechanisms" for remedying it?
  • Because of the unresolved verifiability issues, where you don't know if the right election results are being transmitted or if these are the same ones being canvassed and consolidated, "install large screens in canvassing centers so voters can be able to monitor all these. These will not cost much and the Comelec still has some budget for AES left," said the concerned election watchdogs.

Similarly, the groups urged the Comelec to "come up with mirror sites in the internet for projecting results," and "don't just rely on the Comelec website." The big number of people accessing a single site might cause it to crash.

  • "The Comelec has to be committed to a random manual audit, before proclaiming the winners." There should also be clear and not arbitrary criteria for choosing where the random manual audit will be done.
  • The previous mock elections held by Comelec encountered many glitches, so "conduct another reality-based mock elections, in sites reflecting various conditions in the country, and with more voters (than those in mock elections)"
  • The revised general instructions for BEIs (Board of Election Inspectors) removed the digital signatures required by AES law. "To Comelec, be true to what the law required- that the transmitted results should be digitally signed."

Call to Harness People Power and Unity

Unless proper safeguards are used to plug the vulnerabilities of AES "especially its internal security systems," unless mechanisms are put in place to verify votes, clear instructions for legal adjudication and address "imminent power and transmission failures," and unless the Comelec finally addresses its "lack of transparency in involving and dealing with independent citizens' groups over their valid election-related concerns," the May 10 election could fail, said the six concerned groups.

Although the Comelec is saying that there would be no failure of elections if the people come out to vote on May 10, these groups argued that if the votes are not properly counted, the elections would be in vain and would be a failure.

As such, the six concerned watchdogs and organizations called on the Filipino people to "Prepare for all contingency, for the voters to guard their votes against all attempts to disenfranchise them through fraud and violence, and to support all initiatives by independent citizens' groups to help achieve credible elections and ensure the peaceful transition of power on May 10 this year." (