SC upholds voters’ receipts
For the first time in the country’s controversial electronic balloting system, voters will get proof that their choices are counted on Election Day.
The Supreme Court Thursday upheld its ruling to require the Commission on Elections (Comelec) to issue voter receipts on May 9, deciding in record time to junk the poll body’s reconsideration plea just 30 minutes after terminating oral arguments on the case.
Supreme Court spokesperson Theodore Te said in a hastily called news conference that the magistrates had “denied with finality Comelec’s motion for reconsideration.”
Petitioners and representatives from election contractor Smartmatic-TIM (Total Information Management) Corp. had not even left the Supreme Court compound when Te announced the 13-0 ruling. Associate Justices Antonio Carpio and Lucas Bersamin were on leave and did not vote.
The court has yet to release its full decision. In its original March 8 ruling, the court emphasized the Automated Election System law’s requirement for the Voter Verification Paper Audit Trail (VVPAT), or voter receipts, in vote-count machines (VCMs) during the May polls.
Sigh of relief
Former Sen. Richard Gordon, who filed the mandamus plea along with his party, Bagumbayan-VNP Movement Inc., on Feb. 22, welcomed the ruling.
“It’s the people who won here. They could now heave a sigh of relief because, for the first time, people will have proof that their vote was counted by the machine,” Gordon, who is a senatorial candidate in the May elections, told reporters Thursday.
The high court undertook a quick vote after three-hour oral arguments Thursday morning, in which magistrates got Comelec officials to concede, albeit with reservations, that the poll body could still hold elections as scheduled if it complied with the receipt requirement.
The poll body had already initiated the procurement process to purchase 1.1 million rolls of thermal paper for the receipts, at a cost of P85 million.
Comelec Chair Andres Bautista said the Comelec could print receipts “as is”—meaning it could be done if the poll body does away with the ideal of including security features on the paper printout.
Source code revised
The source code, or the script that runs the automated election software, will have to be revised to enable the machine to include identifying features on the receipt, Bautista said. This would take time, and could potentially delay the elections.
These security features include the voter’s unique ballot ID, precinct number and the hash code, or the alphanumeric value generated through the “trusted build” or the unalterable version of the source code that will run the automated election system.
“As is, yes we can (push through with the elections), but it will have attendant risks, not only in the preparations but on actual Election Day,” Bautista told the court, agreeing that the receipt issuance feature of the vote-counting machines (VCMs) could be activated if the poll body did away with the security features.
At least 92,500 VCMs will be used in the May balloting.
“Yes, we can physically cram all activities so we can meet the requirement, but we will be taking a significant amount of risk and it may impact the credibility of the elections. We have looked at these issues inside out, backward and forward, and we all know this is a critical election because it is tight, that’s why credibility is important,” Bautista said.
A foremost concern is how the system could be abused by cheaters, particularly those engaged in vote-buying, Bautista said.
It would also prolong the voting period thus burdening teachers who will man voting precincts, he said.
‘We will comply’
Bautista said new legislation would be required to establish clear guidelines on the issuance of receipts, including penalties on voters who would defy the court’s instruction that the receipts be kept in a separate ballot box inside the precinct, and not brought outside. It would also require additional training of teachers who will serve as election inspectors.
Associate Justice Marvic Leonen, however, pointed out that the court’s ruling simply ordered the Comelec to print receipts.
“All other managerial problems are not supposed to be addressed to this court,” he said.
“Now that the Supreme Court has decided, we submit and basically we will comply and we will try to do our best to still ensure credible elections on May 9,” Bautista said.
According to him, the VCMs that will be used in the May 9 polls will print receipts. However, he said that what the VCMs could print were just simple receipts, without identifiable marks such as hashcodes and precinct names.
“When a voter feeds the ballot into the vote-counting machine, the onscreen verification can be seen for 15 seconds, then the machine will print the receipt. But it will have no security feature, no hashcode, no precinct number, just ‘Republic of the Philippines,’ ‘Comelec,’” Bautista said.
He pointed out, however, that this is because compliance with the Supreme Court order will not require them to repeat the trusted build of the VCMs.
According to the timeline the Comelec presented, “rebuilding” the code that will run the machines will push the elections back to May 23.
“It was clear earlier, there were questions about what will happen if there is no change in the trusted build of the source code of the VCMs. We explained that the machines can print simple receipts. In fact, it was Justice (Francis)) Jardeleza who referred to it as simple receipt. So that is what we will follow, there will be simple receipt with what the VCMs can do right now,” Bautista added.
Asked what would be the value of the receipt without the security features, Bautista said: “Legally, I cannot say. But it would give comfort to a voter knowing that the machine accurately counted his or her vote.”
The watchdog Kontra Daya welcomed the court’s decision.
“It is our hope that Comelec will now undertake all necessary efforts to implement this provision of the law. We call on the public to remain vigilant. The vote receipt is just one of the safeguards watchdog groups have long advocated. It is still important that the counting of votes will be accurate, that the canvassing would not be vulnerable to rigging. Without a genuine source code review and a review of the canvassing systems, the credibility of the polls will be in doubt,” the group said.
“We call on the Comelec to conduct another round of mock elections, with the added feature of vote receipts and with the inclusion of transmission and canvassing in the tests. From the latest debacles we’ve seen, we will continue to press for the scrapping of a foreign-controlled (Smartmatic) poll system for future elections,” it added.
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