MANILA, Philippines - When the joint canvassing committee of Congress starts its 2nd day of work on Thursday, it will be hard pressed to answer one primordial question that was left lingering in the minds of the public when it wrapped up its day 1: when will they actually start canvassing votes for president and vice-president?
Quite ironically, the automated election system, first tried nationwide in the recently concluded May 10 polls, is fast becoming part of the problem it was meant to solve -- the country’s long time quest for honest, orderly, peaceful elections with results fast and truly reflective of the sovereign will of the people.
Long time questions on the technology used in the new system dominated day 1 of the joint committee’s work, propounded by senior citizen committee members who were, admittedly, not techie or technology-savvy.
House Speaker Prospero Nograles, co-chair of the joint committee, said during the hearing that he didn’t want to argue with the technical experts who handled the elections because he wasn’t techie.
Throughout the course of the proceedings, lawmakers' repetitive and often circuitous questions centered on the following issues:
- the absence of digital signatures in electronically transmitted election returns;
- inaccurate time stamps of some Precinct Count Optical Scan (PCOS) machines;
- the matter of some PCOS machines found in a technician’s property in Antipolo;
- the apparent presence of 2 separate certificates of canvass for president and vice-president; and,
- the faulty Smartmatic canvass server in Congress, which, upon initialization, showed there were 256 million registered voters.
Smartmatic’s Cesar Flores admitted this was an application error. Lawmakers demanded a written report containing the actual cause and names of people behind it.
All such questions were supposed to be anticipatory of possible problems that could come up in the joint committee’s performance of its main canvassing function -- that is -- to ascertain the authenticity and due execution of provincial and city certificates of canvass for president and vice president.
At some point during the hearing, Senate President Juan Ponce Enrile, the other co-chair of the hearing, said it's not for the joint committee to answer these questions now as the committee can decide on problems that could come up during the canvass -- when they actually canvass.
For instance, the matter of whether the joint committee should canvass and proclaim separately the positions of president and vice-president -- because of the apparent presence of 2 separate COCs for these positions when they used to just be in 1 Certificate of Canvass (COC) under the manual system -- is one such matter the joint committee can decide as they go along.
2 forms, 2 thumb marks
Maguindanao Rep. Didagen Dilangalen and Cagayan de Oro Rep. Rufus Rodriguez raised these questions as they showed that the COCs from eastern Samar came in 2 distinct forms, with separate sets of thumb marks of the Boards of Canvassers.
Both lawmakers raised the specter of separate proclamations for president and vice president since the vice presidential race is a closely and hotly contested race between Sen. Mar Roxas and Makati Mayor Jejomar Binay.
Comelec and Smartmatic officials were hard pressed to find a law that justified the preparation of the 2 apparently distinct forms, which, they maintained, still formed just one contiguous COC.
From a layman’s observation of the proceedings, it seemed hard to determine if the circuitous questions was out of a lack of understanding of the technology, or the participants just simply misunderstanding each other, or the lawmakers pursuit of questions that would ferret out what they think is the truth about the reliability of the new election system.
It was clear though as the questioning went on, that committee members weren’t at all convinced that the new system is as reliable as it was supposed to be.
Binay supporters get impatient
Hours of discussions left supporters of Binay, who dominated the gallery of the Batasan Pambansa, impatient.
Binay’s fraternity brothers in the Alpha Phi Omega Fraternity, wearing blue shirts, were easily the most obvious in the gallery.
Second most noticeable were Binay supporters from another group who were wearing yellow.
Also sighted in the gallery were IT experts and non-house and non-Senate media covering the event, as well as legislative staff who conferred with lawmakers in attendance.
One Binay supporter said there were 100 of them wearing blue inside the session hall. Binay supporters will take shifts in watching over the joint canvass proceedings.
Binay supporter Arlan Viray lamented that the proceedings have been very slow, noting no actual canvass had taken place yet, a few hours into the start of the joint committee’s session.
The joint committee is supposed to meet everyday, Mondays to Fridays, from 2 pm to 8 pm.
Break, break, break
On Wednesday, however, it began at 2:44 p.m. And even after it began, it went on several breaks in its first hours for non-canvass related administrative matters.
The 1st break at 2:55 p.m., was called to fix the sound system of the lower House after Enrile complained he had difficulty hearing the statements of those speaking.
This was after Senate minority leader Aquilino Pimentel also complained and suggested that the invited resource persons from the Comelec, Smartmatic, and independent IT experts be given their own microphones, instead of having to share 2 microphones placed on 2 rostrums.
Pimentel said it takes time for each resource person to rise up and proceed to one rostrum to answer a question.
Nograles assured the senators the situation was temporary, and that changes to the sound system would be implemented as they go along.
Minutes later during the break, pages scrambled to give more microphones to the resource persons.
The 2nd break was called at 3:36 p.m. to allow candidates’ lawyers to take their places in the resource persons' panel as the secretariat entered their appearances into the record.
The proceedings caused further delays.
A 3rd break was called at 3:51 p.m. to allow lawmakers to personally peruse sample COCs for president and vice-president after questions were raised if there were separate COCs for the 2 positions, contrary to the 2004 practice when votes for president and vice president were contained in 1 provincial COC.
A 4th break was called at 4:10 p.m. to allow Comelec executive director Jose Tolentino to retrieve which Comelec resolution provision authorized the preparation of several pages of documents to become the provincial certificate of canvass.
This stemmed from questions from senators and congressmen on why there appears to be 2 separate COCs for the 2 positions.
Coffee, water, humidity
Meanwhile, also seen on the floor were congressmen and a senator who are non-members of the joint committee but were witnessing the proceedings.
In an apparent indication of the length of the hearing, cups of coffee and bottles of mineral water were given to the lawmakers.
Blowers were also brought out to manage the increasingly humid temperature in the session hall.
House senior deputy majority leader Neptali "Boyet" Gonzales was seen using some documents to fan himself.
Two widescreens were set up to help show people the documents being examined.
Each lawmaker-canvasser was also provided with his own PC to see the results of the electronic canvassing.
Despite the heavy turnout of people in the proceedings, there were more people who were invited to the next working day of the committee, like members of the Parish Pastoral Council for Responsible Voting (PPCRV), and officials of telecommunications companies.