Comelec must explain
The Commission on Elections (Comelec) had one job to do in 2019: ensure the conduct of “free, orderly, honest and credible” midterm national elections. Was it up to the job? Four days before May 13, Comelec chair Sheriff Abas confidently declared, “Reding-ready na kami for Monday (We’re ready for Monday),” as he led an inspection of the canvassing center at the Philippine International Convention Center.
Election Day quickly belied that claim. Nearly a week after the close of the Monday polls, the full extent of the glitches and aberrations that marred the elections remains to be tallied, but the numbers so far hardly inspire sentiments in the Comelec’s favor. The commission had three years to prepare for this exercise, and this was already the fourth automated election it was conducting. The job should have become easier, more efficient and more orderly, let alone transparent. But Monday’s proceedings turned out to be anything but.
Polling was delayed in many precincts, first of all, as 961 out of the 85,000 vote-counting machines (VCMs) “experienced issues.” Up to 600 VCMs had to be replaced outright by the early afternoon of May 13. According to the Department of Education, teachers who manned the polls reported an even higher number of malfunctioning machines: 1,333. Also, 1,665 SD cards that contained the data fed into the VCMs “suffered glitches.”
The Comelec downplayed the incidents by pointing out that they affected only 1.1 percent of the 85,000 VCMs and 1.9 percent of the SD cards. Still, Comelec spokesperson James Jimenez had to concede that the numbers were “jarring,” considering that in the 2016 presidential election, only 801 VCMs and 120 SD cards malfunctioned. The number of defective VCMs this time around was reportedly three times higher compared to the last polls—a bewildering 220 percent more.
There were also complaints about pre-shaded ballots, ballot receipts that came out wrong (bearing names of candidates the voters hadn’t shaded), the lack of marking pens, problems with the transmission of results.
But easily the most glaring and unprecedented aberration was the seven-hour delay in the release of partial election results to the poll watchdogs and the media.
At 6:15 p.m., just 0.38 percent of the unofficial election results had been transmitted from the Comelec transparency servers, before the data fell silent for an agonizingly long seven hours. The next transmission came at 1:19 a.m. the next day, apparently in one big dump as the partial and unofficial count zoomed to 90.57 percent of the clustered precincts. But, at 6:19 a.m. of May 14, came another glitch: The tally suddenly fell from 92.89 percent to 49.76 percent.
The Comelec attributed the massive lag in transmission to a malfunction in the data packets from the poll body’s transparency server, with the assurance that data from the polling precincts nationwide had continued to stream in during the interval but were only failing to appear in real time due to the technical glitch. As for the sudden drop in the tally on May 14, the cause was “java error.”
The transparency server mess inevitably raised speculations and questions about the credibility of the data. The citizen arm Parish Pastoral Council for Responsible Voting and the Kapisanan ng mga Brodkaster ng Pilipinas are among the groups demanding, “in the spirit of transparency,” that the Comelec provide the public a comprehensive account of the server’s problems. The Senate is also making noise about looking into the issue, with Sen. Aquilino Pimentel III, who chairs the joint congressional oversight committee on the automated elections, asking: “Why are we still having all these glitches? Cannot Comelec anticipate them?”
The public wonders likewise. At this point, while there appears to be popular acceptance of the general outcome of the polls, the conduct of the exercise itself, clearly riddled with irregularities and technical snafus, remains very much a point of concern that cries out for exhaustive audit and inquiry. Voters of whatever political stripe have every right to feel incensed, and incredulous, at the Comelec’s foul-ups, the lot of which appears to be the result of glaringly inadequate preparation and lack of foresight.
Such egregious shortcomings are a failing mark for which the Comelec owes the people an apology. No, it owes them more than that—an unvarnished, no-bullshit explanation for how this debacle came to pass.
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