How to prevent cheating with the vote-counting machines



6. The VCM scans every ballot fed to it and saves images in their SD cards.

One of the outstanding features of the VCMs is the capability to scan the shaded ballots, encrypt those images, and store them in the VCM’s SD (secure digital) cards. So, apart from the physical ballots, there are scanned copies of the same ballots. 

The Supreme Court has  accorded these ballot images with the same evidentiary weight as the actual ballots. They are even viewed as more reliable due to the encryption mechanism implemented and the delimited and traceable chain of custody and storage.

This feature was meant to prevent the scenario in manual elections where losing candidates who file election protests would “operate” the ballots. Cheats usually put invalidating marks on the physical ballots that bore the names of opponents, and put their names, post-election, on blank spaces despite the voters’ intent to abstain.

This new feature has been very effective in detecting post-election tampering by simply comparing the physical ballots with their scanned images. The most noteworthy incident was when a move to discredit the Comelec and the 2013 elections was frustrated before the Joint Congressional Oversight Committee on the Automated Election System (JCOC-AES). 

In this controversy, a certain Judge Celso Baguio of the Regional Trial Court of Gapan City, Nueva Ecija, declared in a civil case that Eddie Villanueva was cheated in the senatorial elections. The judge unabashedly pronounced that the then PCOS machines were inaccurate in counting the votes cast for Villanueva.

Critics of the Comelec, like AES Watch, hailed the decision as incontrovertible proof of the fraud. They missed considering the scanning feature of the voting machines. Under the auspices of the JCOC, consisting of the House of Representatives and Senate members, the ballot images were printed and paired with their physical counterparts. Comparison showed that votes for Eddie Villanueva had been added post-election on the controversial ballots after the elections. No such votes were reflected on ballots originally fed into the machines and scanned on election day. .

Watchers should have their eyes on the SD cards over the physical ballots, making sure these are safe and in proper custody.


7. VCMs can fail and malfunction.

“Lemons” are a fact of our modern and technology-driven lives. VCMs are no different from computers, laptops, and other gadgets. Despite layers of quality checks, some “lemon” VCMs might find their way to the precincts, and this may pose a problem on election day.

The media, however, should be careful not to give inordinate focus, if only one or a few machines malfuction, as this may sow panic among voters. In 2013, one TV station spent hours broadcasting and criticizing one defective machine in Quezon City, but forgot to contextualize the scenario where thousands of other machines worked fine.

While lemons may be inevitable, I believe that Comelec has an established back-up plan on who to call and how to quickly provide replacement VCMs should it happen.


8. VCMs have “audit logs.”

The VCMs have audit logs or audit trails. It is a security-relevant chronological record of all specific operation, procedure, or event affecting a VCM. It serves as documentary evidence of the sequence of activities of the VCMs, noting details like the time they were turned on and off, the exact time they read the ballot, commands entered by the operators, and all cases of ballot rejection.

Back in the Tawi-Tawi case, for example, the audit logs could show indications of fraud, like: when the logs revealed that the PCOS was used outside of the designated voting hours; when ballots from a different island were wrongfully and accidentally inserted and rejected in one precinct; and where precincts with 100% turnout were operational only for 2-3 hours, yet were able to scan and read 800-900 ballots, almost instantaneously and in a factory-like manner.


9. The VCMs print precinct election returns prior to transmission.

“Hacking” of the electronic results has been a public concern with regard to the VCMs. While it would indeed be unwise to sweepingly dismiss any possibility of electronic tampering, it is also irresponsible not to challenge many theories put forward that are based on a lack of understanding of how the system works.

First, election results are transmitted and canvassed in a ladderized manner. Results are transmitted from one level to another: from the barangay precinct to the municipality/component city, then to the province; from the province (independent component and highly urbanized city cities) to the national servers. In this scheme, no official results – even for the national positions – go straight up to the national servers. 

For the first level – transmission from the polling precinct to the municipal board of canvassers (MBOC) – 8 copies of election returns are printed before transmission, then 22 copies are printed after transmission. These printed election returns are distributed to political parties and designated interested parties/persons. This is meant to counter any form of fraud in transmission since interested parties and groups have evidence to question any discrepancy later on when votes are consolidated by the MBOC.

So even if, theoretically speaking, the transmitted results are substituted through “hacking”, the printed election returns at the precinct level maybe used to question or dislodge the hacked result received by the MBOC/CBOC.

This why it is important for the watchers to secure at all times copies of these election returns at the precinct level. To know if you are entitled to receive copies of these returns, check Article VII, Section 28 of Comelec Resolution Number 10057.


10. The truth on the incomplete transmission.

Much has been said about “incomplete transmission” in the 2010 and 2013 automated elections. People called out the Comelec for not counting their votes, and therefore disenfranchising them.

We have to understand that there are two kinds of “transmissions” involving the precinct results.

First is the “unofficial” transmission. This pertains to the transmission from the polling precincts direct to the: KBP/Transparency Server (where unofficial media counts source their data); and the Comelec central office server, which publishes in advance the election results in real time.

Second is the “official” transmission of the result from the polling precinct to the Municipal or City Board of Canvassers, following previously discussed ladderized system of transmitting official results. This transmission is what counts, and the results that goes through this ladderized system is the one considered “official results” and this is the only accepted basis for proclamation.

To illustrate: a polling precinct in Davao City will make multiple transmissions. It will not only officially transmit the precinct result to the Davao City Board of Canvassers, it will also furnish the KBP and the Comelec central office the advance copy of the precinct results, pending the official tabulation.

The criticism on the “incomplete transmission” pertains to the “unofficial” transmission, where polling precincts, due to failed transmissions, were unable to electronically transmit to the KBP and to the unofficial Comelec central office server. Failure to transmit could happen for varied reasons: poor signal, no signal, signal interruption, hardware defects, software errors, among others.

However, in the official ladderized transmission scheme, the procedure in case of repeated failed transmissions is for the BEI to physically bring the SD card containing the encrypted result to the MBOC/CBOC and manually upload the same to the Consolidation and Canvassing System (CCS). Through this manual upload, the missing result is pieced in or completed in the MBOC/CBOC count, while they remain missing or marked “untransmitted” in the KBP and unofficial Comelec central office servers.

In response to the criticism of incomplete transmissions in the past, the Comelec has revised the rule for 2016 by prioritizing the unofficial transmission to the KBP/Transparency and Comelec central office servers over the official transmission to the MBOC/CBOC.

Now, only after the unofficial transmission is transmitted does the VCM officially transmit the results to the MBOC/CBOC. The old rule in the 2010 and 2013 elections prioritized the official transmission to MBOC/CBOC, on the theory that KBP/Transparency and unofficial Comelec central office servers are, after all, not the official count.

Whether this is the right priority or the right remedy to the problem of transmission is too late to be debated. Let's just keep tight watch on the vote come May 9 and the days after. – 

Emil Marañon III is an election lawyer who served as chief of staff of recently retired Comelec Chairman Sixto Brillantes Jr. He is currently studying Human Rights, Conflict and Justice at SOAS, University of London, as a Chevening scholar.