Alarm raised over less secure ballots for May 10 polls

By Aries Rufo,

Posted at Mar 24 2010 05:23 PM | Updated as of Mar 25 2010 01:30 AM

MANILA,  Philippines - The security of the ballots and the votes cast for the May 10, 2010 national elections could be seriously at risk following the move of the Commission on Elections (Comelec) to downgrade some of the security features of the automated polls.

Independent citizen watchdogs have raised alarm over the downgrading of the security features, which, they warned, allows a window of opportunity for cheats to pull off their stunts. They cited two cases: 

First, the Comelec allowed the disabling of the built-in capability of the Precinct Count Optical Scan (PCOS) machines to read and verify the ultra-violet (UV) security mark on the ballot. The UV-mark, which is akin to the UV-mark found in paper money, is supposed to help the machine detect if the ballots fed to the PCOS are genuine or fake.

Second, the Comelec downgraded the audit paper trail, which would confirm if the votes have been correctly counted by the machines.  The Comelec dispensed with the Voter Verifiable Audit Trail, which is similar to the receipt one gets from transactions in Automated Teller Machines.

Replacing the audit trail is a congratulatory note to the voter that his votes have been read by the PCOS. The notice is simply flashed on the PCOS screen.

The Comelec earlier boasted that the official ballots would contain enough security features to stave off fraud. The security measures were also a requirement for Smartmatic-TIM to incorporate into the machines and on the ballots.

Damaso Magbual of the National Citizens Movement for Free Elections (NAMFREL) said the Comelec dispensed with these security features as it wanted to put emphasis on speed rather than security of the votes. “They want speed. They believe those features will delay the voting process,” he said.

Ultra-violet flashlights

In an earlier interview, Commissioner Gregorio Larrazabal, who chairs the steering committee on automation, could not say what prompted Smartmatic-TIM to switch off the UV mark scanner in the PCOS machine.

He said, however, that as a replacement, the Board of Election Inspectors (BEIs) will be provided with UV flashlights that could identify the UV codes. Voters who have doubts on the ballots provided them could ask the BEIs to aim the UV flashlight toward the ballots and locate the UV marks.

Larrazabal said the Comelec en banc approved the disabling of the UV-mark reader.

Random audit of results

With the downgrading of the two features, Magbual said “the only line of defense remaining is the random audit of results” in testing the integrity of the PCOS machines and the votes cast.

Still, this may not be enough since the Parish Pastoral Council for Responsible Voting (PPCRV), the accredited election watchdog to perform the random audit, wants it performed after the elections.

NAMFREL had petitioned the Comelec before for accreditation to conduct the manual random of audit to check on the integrity of the machines. The audit is meant to find out if the machines are not manipulated to favor particular candidates.

Under the automation law, the random audit is to be conducted in one precinct in every district. NAMFREL wanted to expand the random audit to 5-10 precincts per district.

Comelec, however, junked NAMFREL’s petition for accreditation.

Noynoy, Mar issue warning

The Liberal Party (LP) of survey frontrunner Senator Benigno 'Noynoy’ Aquino III has warned of failure of elections because of the faulty preparations for the automated polls.

In a letter to Comelec chair Jose A.R. Melo, Aquino and his running mate Senator Manuel 'Mar' Roxas pleaded with the poll body to consider preparing for manual counting to ensure the elections in May 10 will succeed.

“The unrealistic and abbreviated timeline observed by the Comelec, as well as the consequent alarming delays in the production of election paraphernalia, create a possibility for the occurrence of a failure of elections,” Aquino and Roxas told Melo.

“Further, we are particularly disturbed by the fact that the Commission and Smartmatic-TIM have disabled or entirely removed crucial safeguards in the various components of the AES,” they added.