May 14, 2019

It is ironic that the Commission on Elections (Comelec) relied on a transparency server that proved opaque in delivering up-to-date information while the country waited for the initial results of the mid-term elections.

This year is the fourth instance that the Comelec has used an automated counting system to deliver the results of an election in the country.

What makes this year’s results worrisome is the seven-hour delay in the transmission of tallies of the Senate count, sputtering a reflection of .38 percent of election returns (ERs) processed in the first few minutes after voting precincts closed at 6 p.m. on May 13.

Television reports said there were “transmission problems” that barred the data reflected in ERs from entering the transparency server, thus allowing it to deliver more data as the night wore on.

Media outlets relying on the output of the transparency server stood by helplessly, and for several hours, as the Comelec struggled to figure out what was going on in the late evening of election day.

Meanwhile, voters anxious about the results hunkered in front of televisions sets, computer monitors, any screen they can lay their hands on as the standstill continued.

Imagine everyone’s dismay when in the early morning of Tuesday, results coming in confirmed their worst fears of a landslide victory for administration candidates perceived to be widely unpopular among voters.

Equipment malfunction

But the trouble began much earlier, with the numerous malfunctioning Comelec-issued voters’ registration verification machines (VRVMs) and vote counting machines (VCMs) that resulted in all sorts of delays that worked against eager ones who were first in line at the precincts.

A VRVM is supposed to verify the identity of a voter through biometrics as a measure against cheating and fraud. VCMs, as the name suggests, are supposed to tally the votes of each individual who lines up to shade his or her preferences in the ballot.

A sampling of the complaints received during voting hours:

Former Vice President Jejomar Binay experienced for himself how a VCM refused to read his ballot.

Binay, also running for first district congressman in Makati City, was forced to go to the Comelec’s operations headquarters at the Philippine International Convention Center to personally file a complaint.  His experience was replicated among voters nationwide apparently, but without the benefit of hands-on feedback.

There were also numerous cases of VCMs churning out receipts bearing the names of senatorial candidates whom voters claim they did not include in their ballots.

Phantom votes

Actress Solenn Heusaff (@solennheusaff) was among those who took to Twitter to call attention to a friend whose ballot “had 2 additional names on her receipt that she DIDN’T vote for.”

There were VCMs that allegedly overheated and refused to accept ballots at all.  In some areas, voters clung to their ballots and waited until the Comelec sent a new VCM to read their votes. Others weakened by hunger and heat opted to entrust their ballots to election inspectors or leave them vulnerable to the elements “for feeding later,” as Comelec spokesperson James Jimenez described it, at the foot of malfunctioning VCMs.

More unfortunate were voters who lined up for hours, only to be told upon reaching the VRVMs to confirm their identity, but were told that they “already voted earlier.”

Subsequent news reports later noted how weak telecommunication signals also contributed to delays in the data transmission.

The Comelec later counted between 400 to 600 of distressing cases of malfunctioning VCMs. While the estimate is a mere blip compared to the total 85,000 machines used all over the country, imagine how many voters nationwide—possibly running to the hundred thousands—who were affected by the delays and possible non-transmissions of irreplaceable election data.

Jimenez at one point noted that many of the VCMs used Monday were also used in previous elections. Which probably means the Comelec is confident of their efficiency.

Care instructions

The thing we ask now is whether the Comelec conducted regular maintenance for the units? What about the supposedly mint condition VCMs that also malfunctioned? Is there a person or office who can explain what happened?

Responsibility requires anticipation. Reports mentioned VCMs that either overheated because of the climate or due to constant use. Were these situations not considered before declaring a unit usable on a crucial day?

If VCMs carrying information from election returns fail to do their jobs, and the transparency server cannot transmit data to media, who do we hold accountable? But shouldn’t the Comelec have ensured these things would not happen in the first place?

(If memory serves us correctly, the Comelec expressed confidence earlier it could handle possible power failures and signal interruptions.)

The commission cannot blame citizens now casting doubts about Monday’s electoral exercise. There are simply too many plot twists, too many hardships and too much delay.

An exasperated Abi Valte (@Abi_Valte), former Palace deputy spokesperson suggested at one point that the Comelec should just “show the data from (its) own server” if it could not make the transparency server “push the data to the media monitors.”

We wonder however, who would listen at this point.

Unless the Comelec provides a really credible explanation for its failures, people would be prone to think the transparency server is just fodder for a badly-written drama.


Photo courtesy of Inquirer

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TAGS: 2019 elections 2019 midterm elections comelec Commission on Elections transparency server