MANILA—Poll monitors and senators on Wednesday criticized the Commission on Elections for continuing to refuse being observed in its preparations for the May elections.
Speaking before the Senate Committee on Electoral Reforms and People’s Participation, information-technology expert and lawyer Alexander Ramos said his attempts to enter the Comelec’s warehouse in Sta. Rosa city, Laguna to check the activity there have been rejected.
“The reason here is security, as far as the response of (Comelec) Commissioner (Marlon) Casquejo. There is an observation room that is confined. It’s not even interactive to anyone. We cannot find why there is a security issue. Maski na medical issue, because it’s a ghost observer’s room that we have been using since 2016,” Ramos said.
“Every week I go to the gates . . . ayaw eh. I cannot force the Comelec guards to do that for me. Sabi nila walang coordination, walang authority. Same statement for the last 12 weeks.”
Parish Pastoral Council for Responsible Voting chairperson Myla Villanueva said her office has been writing to the Comelec to allow them to monitor the warehouse
“We were allowed easy access in the past. Now we understand that there’s a pandemic, but we’ve been constantly writing,” Villanueva said.
“Whether it’s a pandemic, we also request that livestreaming be done. It’s very easy to set up a camera for everyone in the nation to see the floor at a distance if it was a pandemic issue. But as you said, it’s already (COVID-19 Alert) Level 1 and we constantly request to be allowed inside the (National Printing Office) in Sta. Rosa."
Helen Aguila Flores, vice chairman of the Comelec’s printing committee, said the pandemic was the reason for the not allowing entry into the facility.
“While it is true that our chairperson of the printing committee, Commissioner Casquejo, has temporarily requested that observation be postponed, it is not true that there is a definite denial of request to observe the printing process, your honor. From what he said during one of our meetings, it will be allowed in due time,” Flores said.
“It’s just that during the time that this request came, the (COVD) alert level I think was No. 2.”
The explanation irked Sen. Aquilino “Koko” Pimentel III, who previously chaired the electoral reforms panel. COVID-19 or not, the Comelec is mandated to show the public what’s happening amid all its election preparations, he said.
“No matter what the Alert Level is, no matter what the pandemic situation is, for as long as the Comelec is undergoing election related activities, they should allow witnesses . . . That’s the nature of the activity eh. The people must be allowed. So do not use the pandemic as the reason and then tuloy ’yung Comelec activity, which should be open to the people for transparency’s sake,” Pimentel stressed.
Sen. Imee Marcos, chairperson of the electoral reforms committee, said: “Kung talagang napakahigpit yung Alert Level, sabihin na natin na 2 or 3, e di sana nahinto ’yung printing. Totally tapos. Pero hind pwedeng tuluy-tuloy kayo tapos hindi kayo nagpapapasok ng tao. Pambihirang buhay ’yan.”
Flororita said such a concern will be brought up with the Comelec leadership.
One of the issues also raised by poll monitors was the ongoing “configuration” of SD cards which, according to Comelec information and technology director Jeannie Flororita, is about to be completed, and the gathering, too, of digital signatures of teachers who will oversee the electoral process on the actual election day.
Hubert Guevara, another IT expert, cited Casquejo’s commitment to allow election observers and representatives of different candidates in the regional and provincial hubs.
Casquejo earlier made a commitment to all parties that he will allow their physical presence in the regional and provincial hubs, data center, as well as in "meet me room", or where the transmittal router is located, Guevara said.
Election returns will be also posted on the Comelec website.
“All of a sudden merong pagsisikip (ng accommodation) . . . We have people who’d go to the area and this same people (who cannot enter),” Guevara said.
IT expert and lawyer Ivan John Uy expressed his concern on the Comelec's creation of various “regional hubs” that handle concerns or reconfigure defective SD cards or VCMs (vote counting machine) during election day.
“In the past there was a very secure, single, well-guarded configuration room in Sta. Rosa. Now, we have it scattered all over the provinces, and all over the region, without anybody knowing who are stationed there, who are guarding that and that there are no oversight from any political party,” Uy pointed out.
In defense, Flororita said there was no intention to hide the proceedings to the public. She said the Comelec has already scheduled a "walk-through" at the warehouse on Monday, March 14, and March 22 as an “end-to-end” demonstration.
“Because we are securing the area because the configuration is there. Ang mga security guard po will not allow you to the area if you don’t have the approval before entering the area,” Flororita said.
“The configuration I’m mentioning po is the creation of the SD card with configuration, but the process of pre-election logic and accuracy test is not yet done.”
Flororita said this was just the first stage of the process and the other important stages of SD card production will follow.
She said the commission put up differed “configuration sites” to ensure fast action to SD cards or VCMs that will act up on election day.
“Sa regions and province, we call it technical hubs. That’s where we copy a specific configuration in case a VCM or an SD card becomes defective,” Flororita said.
“Let’s go to Mindanao. Instead of going to Sta. Rosa for the replacement of that specific precinct, what we are doing is from Sta. Rosa, we create that specific precinct only file, and send it to Mindanao hub, and then they will just copy. They are not doing the configuration, but copying … and the personnel assigned there are (from Department of Science and Technology and Department of Information and Communications) po.”
All hubs are being managed by DOST and DICT personnel, Flororita said.
However, Uy emphasized there should be an assurance that data being transmitted, in this instance, from Mindanao to Sta. Rosa, will not be compromised or intercepted along the way.
“Since these are provincial and regional hubs, shouldn’t all the political parties, the watchdogs be present there so that what is being swapped SD cards are not pre-loaded SD cards?” he said.
Election observers also see the issue of “digital signature” that teachers will be using to accessing the VCMs as another concern, he said.
“There will just be a selected areas to implement the digital signature. Mainly because of the lack of equipment that we will need to copy from the (Electoral) Board of Digital Signature to the I-button,” Flororita said in response.
Around 300,000 teachers deployed to election precincts have been enrolled to the digital signature program, according to DICT acting Secretary Emmanuel Caintic.
“Ang way para magamit ’yan sa mismong halalan ay gagamitin ’yung I-button. We were informed by Comelec na . . . kulang po kasi . . . ’yung kagamitan para idugtong sa isang server para doon ida-download at bitbit ng teacher ’yung I-button,” Caintic said.
“Sapat ’yung nabiling I-button pero nagkulang sa download cable para pandugtong.”
Marcos scored on 3 failed biddings entered into by the Comelec on the said project and asked the commission to explain.
“In first quarter of 2021, we already have biddings for the network adaptor that will connect the I-button reader and I-button to the laptop. Pero because po of the pandemic ’yung mga supplier po hindi sila nag-bid, hindi sila nag-join during bidding . . . Because we cannot get the 2,000, we decreased that to kahit mga 1,000 and then naging 200 na nga lang po. Still po hindi kami makabili,” Flororita said.
“What we have po in Comelec is 29 pieces that’s why po we decided to have na lang pilot tests dun sa 29 na ’yun that can be shared by municipalities.”
The Comelec, according to Flores, has already printed 66.4% of the required ballots of more than 65 million ballots for this year’s elections.
“Out of the 66.4% printed ballots, because there is still another stage called verification. Verification is still ongoing at 47% and ballots exited is at 42% . . . They have already been turned over to the packing and shipping, your honor,” she said.
Pimentel said the Comelec should be aware of "sensitivities from the very start of the electoral period."
“People really need to have access, whether interested parties or those who are interested in our democratic processes,” he said.
“How long is the Comelec inconsistence? Parang half a century na yata? Dapat alam na nila ’yan.”
Flores said a plan to livestream the process is “now in the works” as she vowed to relay the concerns to Cosquejo.
As for the alleged “breached” Comelec data earlier reported by the Manila Bulletin, the DICT, the National Privacy Commission, and the Comelec said that there was no such compromise, since vital information of voters being kept by the poll body have yet to be uploaded into their system.
Flororita said supposed compromised data have been checked, earlier identified by the NPC as one covering overseas voters.
“The Office of Overseas Voting, we do not have that file in our possession because it’s in excel file. Ang mga files po namin for the voter’s information are in the database. So, it is not from Comelec,” Flororita told the committee.
“That specific file, we’re not giving to Smartmatic, that personal information with Personal Identifiable Information.”
The NPC, meanwhile, confirmed that what it suspected was that the leaked information came from Smartmatic, a 3rd-party firm.
Marcos has instructed the panel to invite Smartmatic to the next hearing to explain its side.
“The only information that we’ve given to Smartmatic are only the electoral data. These are the candidates, project of precinct, clustered precinct, city, municipality, province and the number of seats and positions,” Flororita said.