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To ensure honest and credible elections

/ 12:12 AM February 20, 2016

THE ELECTIONS on May 9 will likely be one of the hottest and closest races in the history of the nation. With no less than four candidates for president and at least three for vice president who have a good shot at winning, it is imperative that the elections be not only transparent, honest and credible, but also be perceived as such.

The fact that flaws and problems occurred in the mock polls held last week suggests that the Commission on Elections still needs to do much fixing and adjustment to ensure that the problems so identified are corrected and not repeated on Election Day. It is thus necessary that a second mock electoral exercise be conducted, and possibly even a third, to fully address these concerns.

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As of this writing, the Comelec has announced that the feature of the vote-counting machines (VCM) to print a voter-verified paper audit trail, or show on the VCM screen the votes cast, will be disabled, ostensibly to reduce the time it takes to process each voter. This is one less security feature that would have provided proof that the machine correctly read the votes cast. Hopefully, the source code review would satisfactorily mitigate the risk that there are malicious codes in the VCM that can be used to manipulate the votes.

At the Comelec en banc hearing last January to hear the petition filed by Namfrel (or the National Citizens Movement for Free Elections) for accreditation as an election monitoring organization, there were no objections from the gallery. Namfrel is thus virtually assured of its accreditation. Comelec Chair Andy Bautista even specifically mentioned the random manual audit (RMA) as an area that Namfrel is best qualified to address, considering that its current leadership was previously involved in the country’s top auditing firms.

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The Election Code requires that at least one precinct per congressional district be subjected to an RMA, but there are plans being considered to possibly increase the number of precincts per congressional district depending on the population of registered voters. In the RMA effort, Namfrel will once again work with the Philippine Institute of Certified Public Accountants, as it did in 2013. But it would be of great help if the Comelec could work with statisticians to come up with a random sampling technique that would enable the results to be extrapolated, at a certain acceptable level of confidence, to the entire congressional district, and in the aggregate, at the national level.

Namfrel has also forwarded to the Comelec its suggestions with respect to the campaign finance rules. The Comelec has adopted some of these suggestions, particularly the use of Excel templates that would facilitate the summarization, comparison and analysis of the reports submitted.
One suggestion was unfortunately not adopted: that the reports submitted by the candidates be reviewed by accredited auditing firms using a special program to test and ascertain their fairness. Namfrel believes that this initial review by external auditors will help expedite the review by the Comelec. In addition, the external audit will also likely compel the candidates to submit factual reports.

For greater transparency, Namfrel also wants to see the VCM directly transmit the precinct election returns to the transparency server simultaneous with the transmission to the municipal, provincial and Comelec servers. In the past two elections, the transparency server received the transmissions from the Comelec server which, given the 23-percent transmission failures from the precincts to the Comelec in the 2013 elections, simply added concerns concerning the credibility and integrity of the results. Namfrel will coordinate with media networks and civil society organizations to convince the Comelec to accept this suggestion.

For votes for the presidency and vice presidency, Namfrel is planning a parallel count to verify the Comelec results. While this may not identify hidden programs in the VCM itself, it will at least address the risk of possible manipulations during transmissions and consolidations at the municipal, provincial and national levels.

Namfrel will achieve this by auditing around the computer, a technique performed to test the processing done in the computer without having to test the software and hardware themselves. Working jointly with the Kapisanan ng mg Brodkaster ng Pilipinas and other election monitoring organizations that are entitled to the first eight copies of the election returns printed by the Board of Election Inspectors, Namfrel will collect as many precinct election returns. These will then be forwarded by e-mail or SMS to a Namfrel central server that will compile the results for the top two positions.

The results will then be compared with the official tabulations of the Comelec. While the official Comelec results will definitely come first, the Namfrel results will provide independent verification of the fairness, truthfulness and integrity of the official Comelec tabulations. In a closely contested race, which is what we expect in May, and with some security features dropped by the Comelec for reasons of expediency, this independent, third-party parallel count will provide added credibility to the results. In addition, parties and individuals who are thinking of manipulating the results may be deterred from pushing through with their plans if they know that the cheating can be detected and identified.

David L. Balangue ([email protected] ph) is chair of Namfrel and former chair and managing partner of SyCip Gorres Velayo & Co.

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TAGS: Commission on Elections, Elections 2016, The Election Code, vote-counting machines
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