Supreme Court orders Comelec to bare details of preparations
By Edu Punay
The Philippine Star
MANILA, Philippines – Amid fears of a failure of elections due to reported glitches in the automated system, the Supreme Court (SC) compelled yesterday the Commission on Elections (Comelec) to make public details of its preparations for the polls on Monday.
By a vote of 12-3, the high court partially granted the petition of a group of concerned citizens, led by former Vice President Teofisto Guingona Jr., and ordered the poll body to fully disclose its preparations for the conduct of the automated elections because of recent “alarming developments.”
Comelec spokesman James Jimenez said the poll body respects the decision of the SC and would abide by its order but believed that the petition of Guingona’s group was unnecessary.
“The Comelec has always been very transparent in the implementation of the automation project,” Jimenez said.
In a 20-page resolution penned by Senior Associate Justice Antonio Carpio, the SC upheld the right of petitioners to information on the poll automation, which it said is “a matter of great public concern.”
“The people’s constitutional right to information is intertwined with the government’s constitutional duty of full disclosure of all transactions involving public interest. For every right of the people, there is a corresponding duty on the part of those who govern to protect and respect that right,” the SC explained.
“On election day, the country’s registered voters will come out to exercise the sacred right to suffrage. Not only is it an exercise that ensures the preservation of our democracy, the coming elections also embody our people’s last ounce of hope for a better future,” it stressed.
The information the Comelec needs to reveal include nature and security of all equipment such as software and hardware components, source code for review by interested parties; the terms and protocols of the random manual audit; and certification from the technical evaluation committee that the entire automated system is fully functional and continuity plan is already in place.
Also required to be disclosed are certification protocol and actual certification issued by the Department of Science and Technology that the 240,000 Board of Election Inspectors all over the country are trained to use the automated election system as required under Republic Act 9369 or the Poll Automation Law.
The SC granted the petition of Guingona’s group after the Comelec failed to cite any provision of law exempting the information sought by petitioners from the coverage of the government’s constitutional duty to disclose fully information of public concern.
It noted reports on glitches in the precinct count optical scan (PCOS) machines to be used for the automated election system a few days before the polls, citing for instance the recall of 76,000 compact flash cards following widespread failure of the machines to read and tally votes during the test conducted by the Comelec and contractor Smartmatic.
Eleven other magistrates, including retiring Chief Justice Reynato Puno, concurred in the ruling. Three others – Senior Associate Justice Renato Corona and Associate Justices Presbitero Velasco Jr. and Roberto Abad – dissented.
Public right to information
In a 21-page petition last April 23, the group of Guingona invoked the public right to information in pushing for full transparency of Comelec on the conduct of elections.
They said they sought relief from the court following what they described as “alarming developments that indicate poor and highly questionable acts of Comelec.”
Among these, they explained, are earlier reports involving the wrong ink used on ballots and the admission of Smartmatic-Total Information Management consortium of wrong supply of ultraviolet ink used in the printing of ballots that are unreadable by the PCOS machines.
Through lawyer Felix Carao Jr., petitioners feared that such an error or technical glitch could lead to massive cheating and failure of election.
They specifically wanted to know the status of the poll body’s negotiation for election supplies and paraphernalia, including contracts that did not undergo bidding, the nature and security of the machines, memory card and other software and facilities to be used for the election, including its current anti-hacking or tampering strategy.
They also wanted the Comelec to reveal the content of the source code review mandated under the Poll Automation Law and the terms of access by the public to the code.
The petitioners sought information on the schedule, venue and specifications of the random manual audit mandated under same act, as well as the terms and protocols under which manual voting would be implemented and failure of elections be declared.
In filing the petition, Guingona was joined by national broadband network whistleblower Rodolfo Lozada Jr., Bishop Leo Soriano of the United Methodist Church, the late Silliman University president Dr. Quintin Doromal, writer Fe Maria Arriola, and non-government organization leader Isagani Serrano.
Special session called
Yesterday, Chief Justice Puno called for a special session to resolve crucial election-related cases while the SC is on recess in deference to the elections on Monday.
SC spokesman Midas Marquez confirmed that the special session of the high court would start at 3 p.m. today.
Marquez explained that the special session called by Puno, who will retire on May 17, does not mean that the election recess of the SC has already been cancelled to accommodate the influx of election cases.
The SC adjourned last Tuesday and set the next session after the proclamation of the new president on June 30 and under a new chief justice to be appointed by President Arroyo.
Among the cases that the magistrates are expected to discuss is the petition filed by Concerned Citizens Movement, led by UP law professor Harry Roque Jr., asking the SC to order the Comelec to revert to the old system of manual voting and counting of ballots. – With Sheila Crisostomo