Comelec delays alarm poll watchdog groups
By Kristine L. Alave
Philippine Daily Inquirer
MANILA, Philippines—Preparations for the May 10 elections have become a catch-as-catch-can affair, alarming poll watchdog groups.
With a month to go before the first nationwide computerized balloting, the Church-led Bantay ng Bayan and the National Citizens’ Movement for Free Elections (Namfrel) said that the Commission on Elections (Comelec) was way behind its schedules.
The groups said in a press conference Tuesday that the Comelec had resorted to “shortcuts,” eroding confidence that the vote would be credible.
Bantay ng Bayan, an umbrella group composed of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of the Philippines and the National Secretariat for Social Action, Justice and Peace, and Namfrel voiced apprehensions at the weak links on the election preparations.
Namfrel had served as the Comelec’s citizens’ arm in the past elections, a role that it would not play this time. The Comelec gave this role in May to the Parish Pastoral Council for Responsible Voting (PPCRV).
Bantay ng Bayan noted the voters list had about 3 million multiple registrants and said that the security marking on the ballot and the indelible ink, which would ground so-called “flying voters,” were weak.
The groups also urged the Comelec to implement a random manual audit before the proclamation saying it could be the last best safeguard against electoral fraud.
Comelec Chair Jose Melo dismissed fears that the automated system is insecure.
“There may be failures of elections, but only isolated in isolated areas, just like in the manual system.”
He said that there were enough safeguards against vote tampering and other forms of electoral fraud, citing multiple copies of election returns and ballots stored inside the counting machines.
Melo also has repeatedly stated that the system could not be easily hacked to tamper with the results.
Comelec officials have said that they had counted 700,000 multiple registrants but that they had established a database of these people and lists containing their names would be distributed to the precincts before the polling.
Namfrel officials said random checks on the computerized voters list on various parts of the country showed many errors that could be used by poll operatives to manipulate the election results.
Namfrel chair Jose Cuisia said that his group was concerned at the “disablement or delay of certain safeguard provisions,” which ensured credible results.
Asked if Namfrel and its allied organizations did not see credible results on May 10, Cuisia and other officials said that what they had seen so far had not yet passed the threshold where they could say that the system would produce dubious results.
“We are not among those who are saying we fear there is failure of elections. We are hopeful that these problems are resolved,” he said.
David Balangue, another Namfrel executive, added: “There are indications but we need to be extremely vigilant.”
Cuisia cited the wrong ultraviolet (UV) ink that the Comelec and its electronic election provider, Smartmatic-TIM Corp., had decided to use for its security mark as one of the alarming developments in the poll preparations.
Because the precinct count optical scan machine was unable to read the UV ink and rejected the ballots, Smartmatic-TIM had decided to turn off the machines’ built-in UV reader and use portable UV lamps instead.
“The portable lights were not included in the original budget of the project and their use now adds an extra step in a new process which the BEIs (Board of Election Inspectors) are only beginning to learn,” Cuisia said.
The Namfrel officials also voiced apprehensions over the removal of digital signatures and the lack of transparency on the source code review. They urged the poll body to allow public review of the automated system’s back up process in case of software failure.
According to Namfrel, these security measures were provided in the law to ensure that there were no suspicious programs in the voting machines that could undermine the conduct of the polls.
Eric Alvia, Namfrel secretary general, warned against multiple voters in the national registry. He noted that Bantay Bayan inspections on random voters lists from various parts of the country showed errors like multiple identical names and deceased persons on the rolls.
There were also “questionable” numbers of centenarian voters in some towns. Mandaluyong, for instance, has 187 voters who are at least 100 years old, Alvia said.
Cuisia said the Comelec should post the voters lists in prominent places to allow voters ample time to check their precincts under the clustered precinct scheme.
Also Tuesday, Melo said that the Comelec en banc had ordered in a resolution the reassignment of its regional executives, led by officials implicated in the “Hello Garci” scandal, ahead of the elections.
“Principal among them is the reassignment of Director Sumalipao from the ARMM (Autonomous Region of Muslim Mindanao) to Davao [Region],” Melo said in a press briefing.
“I’m not saying he is guilty of any shortcoming or malfeasance or whatever but what I’m saying is the perception of the public is that you are involved there. So as an administrator, I have to transfer you,” Melo explained.
Garci’s men out by May
Sumalipao was said to be a subordinate of disgraced Comelec Commissioner Virgilio Garcillano, who allegedly conspired with President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo to rig the 2004 balloting, a charge she has denied. Sumalipao has denied that he was ever under Garcillano.
Melo has promised lawmakers that Comelec officials with connections to Garcillano will be out of the picture in the May polling.
He said that 10 regional officials were included in the resolution that would become effective immediately once they received the order. Melo said provincial election directors would be reshuffled next week.
The reassignment was part of the Comelec’s measure to distance its officers from local politicians they had grown familiar with during the election period.