SC urged to compel Comelec to allow use of cellphones in polling places

Mike Navallo, ABS-CBN News

Posted at Apr 24 2019 08:06 PM

MANILA -- A poll watchdog and a group of socio-civic and religious organizations and individuals claiming to be election reform advocates have urged the Supreme Court to revoke what they call a “sweeping ban” on the use of digital cameras and cellphones in election proceedings imposed by the Commission on Elections.

They also want the Comelec to implement an election law requiring a paper-based verification of votes and the use of digital signatures in authenticating election results.

In a 24-page petition, the group led by Automated Election System Watch (AES Watch) claimed the Comelec is violating the Automated Election System Law (Republic Act No. 8436 as amended by RA 9369) when it released a resolution banning the use of cameras and cellphones “for whatever purpose” while inside a polling place, without qualification as to time.

The group said this resulted to a “sweeping ban” of cellphones and cameras even after polls closed in the 2016 elections, preventing poll watchers from auditing the results.

In contrast, it argued, the law allows any person to “capture an image of the election return” within 48 hours after it is posted inside a polling place.

The group also claimed Comelec has failed to comply with the Automated Election Sytem Law’s requirement for the use of a “voter verified paper audit trail” (VVPAT).

It cited a 2016 Supreme Court ruling in Bagumbayan-VNP Movement v. Comelec which ordered the poll body to “enable the vote verification feature of the vote-counting machines, which prints the voter’s choices…”

VVPAT is a system where voters can verify whether the vote-counting machines have been able to count their votes by reviewing a paper-based printout.

Comelec had opposed the move citing fears its might be used for vote-buying.

But in the 2016 SC ruling, the high court declared the use of VVPAT as a mandatory voting safeguard, even as it allowed Comelec to “issue guidelines to regulate the release and disposal of issued receipts” to ensure clean and honest elections.

While a VVPAT system was introduced in the 2016 polls, the group said the ban on cellphones prevented voters from taking photos of the printouts.

The group suggests lifting the cellphone ban after the polls close at 5 pm so that voters, poll watchers and the public can take photos of the VPPAT printouts after they have been shuffled to avoid possibility of vote-buying.

It is also dissatisfied with Comelec and Smartmatic’s recent innovation of incorporating QR or quick response codes on every VVPAT printout. A QR code is a two-dimensional matrix bar code that is a machine-readable optical label containing information about the item.

“The QR code may be an audit tool but it appears that Smartmatic wants to be an impostor auditor. The very purpose for VVPAT in Republic Act No. 9369 is to empower the Voter (not Comelec and certainly not Smartmatic). VVPAT is the one and only rare opportunity for a Voter to be sovereign in at least that specific moment of auditing the trustworthiness of a machine,” it said.

Lastly, the group urged the high court to compel the poll body to adopt a digital signature system to be able to audit “electronic transmission results from the point of sending at the precinct or polling place to the point of receiving at [the] Canvassing and Consolidation System (CCS) at [the] municipal/city/provincial/national servers.”

Joining AES Watch as petitioners are groups Buklod Pamilya, Capitol Christian Leadership, Citizens’ Crime Watch, Connecting Businessmen in the Marketplace to Christ, Latter Rain Harvest Ministries, One Vote Our Hope and Upper Room Brethren Church (Philippines), and 13 other individuals. In media advisories, the group calls itself “Mata sa Balota.”

Both the Comelec and Smartmatic Total Information Management (Smartmatic) are named as respondents.