By Vanne Elaine Terrazola
The country would have no choice but to have a “hybrid” system of elections in 2022 should the Commission on Elections (Comelec) “fail” anew in ensuring the accuracy and integrity of the results of the automated midterm polls next year.
Senator Aquilino “Koko” Pimentel issued the warning Tuesday following the hearing of the Senate Committee on Electoral Reforms and People’s Participation on the privilege speeches of Senate President Vicente Sotto III on the alleged irregularities that transpired a day before the May 9, 2016 elections.
“This is a warning to Comelec and its number one, main contractor, Smartmatic, kapag marami pa ring issues sa 2019 at maraming kapalkapan, or some observations which cannot be really explained by them. Then wala na tayong choice, we really have to abandon that (automated) and then shift to hybrid,” Pimentel, committee chairman, said.
Pimentel, who had expressed openness for hybrid of manual and automated election system, said the idea is “worth pursuing” especially amid doubts over the results of the previous electronic polls. He also chairs the joint congressional oversight committee on the automated elections system.
“We would bring back the manual counting in precincts so that voters or countrymen could see the results in their precincts. But we would find a way that election returns would be high-tech. There would a machine-readable [election return] form which the BEI (board of election inspectors) would fill up, then would insert to machines located in the voting centers to transmit electronically the results the results of the precincts,” Pimentel said in Filipino.
“So we could address the call for transparency, because the voter himself will see the counting in his precinct, and the need for speed when we now sum up the results of the precincts,” he said.
Pimentel, however, said there would be “no time anymore” to prepare or even pass a legislation for a hybrid 2019 election.
Sotto had filed Senate Bill 1858 proposing the conduct of a hybrid national and local elections through manual counting at the precinct level and automated transmission and canvassing. A similar measure is filed in the House of Representatives.
Pimentel admitted that he is now apprehensive for the holding of the midterm elections next year after doubts on the 2016 national polls were raised in the hearing Tuesday.
Sotto invited in the hearing lawyer Levito Baligod who represents his two sources for his expose claiming there was an “early transmission of votes” in the 2016 polls.
Baligod told the panel that potential “material witnesses” can prove Sotto’s claims.
Particularly, Baligod, citing his clients, said there was an “unauthorized’ and “malicious” server used for the 2016 polls. He said it was not included in the transmission diagram submitted by the Smartmatic and approved by the Comelec.
He added that the source codes of the said server were not reviewed. The server, he stressed, was “responsible for the unbundling of the transmission packages” and was used as a “gateway” for transmission of the alleged results.
The server, he claimed, was “heavily” used on May 10 to 11, days after the voting.
Baligod also echoed Sotto’s claim that a “foreign” server had access and intruded in the country’s elections.
The lawyer said the witnesses cannot face the Senate inquiry due to a contract prohibiting them to divulge technicalities of the national elections. But he said they are part of the group which developed and operated the software used for the polls.
Comelec Executive Director Jose Tolentino maintained that there was no discrepancy on their records and processes as far as the poll body is concerned.
They also clarified to the panel the processes before the 2019 polls.
A Comelec official said they used two different softwares in their central election server. One, the “e360” pushed the result to the National Technical Support Center which is activated on May 9 to verify transmissions by the vote counting machines.
The “e360sync” user, which Sotto had mentioned, on the other hand, pushed the results to the Comelec website and which wuld then be published on election day.
Smartmatic General Manager Elie Moreno agreed to this, stressing that data pushed was “definitely not the votes.”
On the alleged foreign access, Tolentino said the Comelec en banc allowed the use of the Amazon web server for the Comelec website. Citing requirements stipulated in a Comelec resolution, he said this was “most secure” web platform and is even used by other government agencies.
Tolentino also noted using a “back-up server” to prevent failure of transmission of votes. He argued that political parties, election watchdogs, and other stakeholders were informed of such a server.
As for the transmission activity prior to the may 9 polls, Tolentino said the Comelec has to verify their transmission logs which he said is protected by a Presidential Election Tribunal security order.
The Senate panel, however, was unsatisfied with how the Comelec responded to the claims.
“We were so frustrated with the explanation of the Comelec on the issues raised by Senate President Sotto,” he said.
“That’s why we required Comelec to please officially, and in writing, answer. Because when we ask them, they were looking at each other, like they did not know what happened. So they should write, then we will look at the explanation. If these are plausible, reasonable, believable explanation then we may accept it. If it is out of this world, then something is wrong,” Pimentel added.
The Senate suspended its probe pending the Comelec’s submission of the transmission logs, to answer to allegations of early transmission.