Political Tidbits is the prestigious column of Belinda Olivares-Cunanan that ran for 25 continuous years in the op-ed page of the Philippine Daily Inquirer, the newspaper that she helped put up with its multi-awarded founder, the legendary Eugenia Duran-Apostol, in December 1985, just two months before the EDSA Revolution.

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Controversy over automation’s source code

Last Sunday I wrote in this blog about two important protest cases that were among the first to be filed after the automated elections of May 10, 2010, on allegations that electronic fraud was committed against the losing candidates. One case in filed in Manila by former Mayor Lito Atienza against incumbent Mayor Alfredo Lim, and the other in Pasay City, filed by former Rep. and losing candidate Consuelo Dy against former Vice-Mayor and incumbent Mayor Antonino Calixto.

Atienza seeks a recount in the votes of some 6,653 precincts in Manila on the ground of alleged manipulation of electronically-generated election returns, while Dy alleged that while 183,618 voters actually cast their votes, the sum of all votes for all the mayoralty candidates, including former Mayor Peewee Trinidad who garnered the third place in the recent elections, was only 175,304. Dy alleged that the missing 8,314 votes in the tight Pasay City contest were not counted by the defective and/or pre-programmed CF cards and the PCOS machines. Ballot boxes for 370 clustered precincts will be covered by the protest of Dy, who wants at least eight committees to work on the recount. But her protest won’t come cheap, as she’s being asked to pay P1,500 per protested precinct as well for the various expenses involved in the recount over perhaps weeks and months.

Dy's allegations of fraud and irregularities

What’s significant is that Comelec Commissioner Nicodemo Ferrer has asserted that candidate Dy was able to show in detail alleged electronic frauds and irregularities committed in the voting, counting and canvassing of votes, in addition to the alleged massive vote-buying in that city. But in addition to the two protests filed in Metro Manila, protests from various provinces are also being filed. Last Sunday I mentioned the electoral protest filed by former Rep. Glenn Chong against his opponent in the tiny island of Biliran in Region VIII. Ferrer has also approved the filing of a new protest case against Mayor Christian Tinio in Gapan City, Nueva Ecija, by losing candidate Juanita Natividad, where only a slim 6,300-vote margin for Tinio is under dispute.

The need for a comprehensive review

The increasing electoral protest cases at various levels that are being filed at the Comelec highlight the need for a comprehensive review of our first automated election system (AES). The review of the AES within a reasonable time before the elections has been the position that Filipino IT professionals, led by the UP-based Center for People Empowerment on Governance (Cenpeg), have strongly advocated since June 2009. But in view of so many errors and deficiencies which surfaced in the post-election period, especially in the House hearings of the Committee on Suffrage and Electoral Reforms of the 14th Congress, a review has become even more necessary at this point; but it cannot be intelligently done without the source code for the elections on various levels.

As defined by the Automated Elections Act, RA 9369, the source code contains the “human-readable instructions that define what the computer equipment will do.” In other words, it’s the road map to the path taken by the PCOS machines. During the House hearings chaired by former Rep. TeddyBoy Locsin, IT experts like Bettina Quimson, vice president of a professional group, kept pressing to go back to the source code in order to understand the reported aberrations of these machines, as claimed by losing politicians. But as Cenpeg recently stressed in a paper titled “17 Reasons Why the Comelec must Release Vital Public Documents,” by IT Consultant Angel S. Averia, Jr., the poll body has adamantly refused to release the source code, along with 21 other vital election documents.

Conflicting views of IT professionals and Comelec

What’s difficult to reconcile are the conflicting views of the IT professionals and Comelec on this matter. Cenpeg first began pressing to get the source code in June 2009 and Comelec at first agreed to have them ready by November, 2009. But later it reversed itself and refused to make the source code accessible altogether, saying that it’s being used in processing the list of voters, which is not part of the voting, counting and canvassing systems under RA 9369. In October last year, Cenpeg filed a suit before the Supreme Court to demand the source code’s release to it but before the SC could rule on this issue, the Comelec quite suddenly said in February this year that it had already deposited the disputed document in the Bangko Sentral ng Pilipinas;  I heard poll officials repeat this claim at the House hearings last May---the source code is in the BSP.

Last Sept. 21, 2010, the Supreme Court, after nearly a year, finally ordered the Comelec to release the code to Cenpeg, but the poll body is singing a different tune. Commissioner Gregorio Larrazabal, in answer to the SC order, now insists that the Comelec had not been remiss in following RA 9369 to make the code accessible; that in fact it had sat down with certain political parties and civic groups before the elections and gave them “many opportunities” to conduct a review of the code, but that “no one wanted to do one.”

Is the Comelec hesitating?

The way I see it, the Comelec appears to be quibbling here and it might be telling only a half-truth about making the source code truly accessible. I can understand its hesitation to release it to the IT professionals through their political parties, especially since it claims that the code was also used in checking out the voters’ list;  perhaps the Comelec did not distrust the IT professionals, but it has little trust in the political parties. After all, the latter have had a record in finagling with the voters’ list in past years (remember the flying voters and the dead who vote repeatedly?).

But safety measures could have been installed to prevent tampering with the voters’ list, just so that a proper review of the source code by the experts could have been undertaken well before the elections---that is, if the poll body did not aim to hide anything.

Part of a grand plot?

I can’t help but think of the thinly-veiled accusations hurled during the House hearings about the possible involvement of some Comelec personnel in electronic fraud manipulations in the last elections. The controversy kicked up by “Koala Boy,” as TeddyBoy Locsin nicknamed the masked man who surfaced for a while to denounce alleged e-frauds in the elections, was too recent to forget. But though Locsin made fun of Koala Boy, he himself gave as much allowance to frauds in his committee report.

The question is: were the attempts to make inaccessible the source code, so vital to the understanding of the AES, part of a grand plot to enable some cheaters in the Comelec to operate in high-tech electoral fraud last May 10 and beyond?  

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