What happens after?

The Automated Election System (AES) caused both fear and excitement. My own thrill came with the fact that I worked as a paralegal in the past elections when manual counting and canvassing were the usual centers of a legal team’s activities. Protests galore, yes, and some delaying tactics once in a while. I was excited to see how things would change.

I was fortunate to have volunteered for the legal team of the re-electionist Congresswoman of the First District of Bataan, Hon. Herminia B. Roman. For a few weeks, the lawyers and paralegals of the team worked to make sure our candidate, staff, watchers and voters were legally protected.

Here are a few of my observations and experiences.

1. Watchers were willing to listen and learn. I was given the opportunity to meet our candidate’s watchers for around five towns and conduct training for them. While the lectures were more about their duties as watchers, the lawyers I worked with designed the training in a way that the watchers can teach voters how to vote, when they go back to their homes after the 3-hour workshop.

At the start of every workshop, we assured the trainees that it’s okay to ask questions because no one can really claim to be an expert in the system. Filipinos were all virgins as far as the AES was concerned.

In Morong, where I knew most of the attendees because it’s my hometown, some non-watchers even dropped by to listen as we held the training under the trees and near the river.

The workshops were my favorite part of the job because I met a lot of people, some were even my students years ago. The sad part was that I got to see how much we lacked voter education. We can always pass the blame on Smartmatic for the technological glitches, but the COMELEC has no excuse for the shortcomings in info campaign. In case some Commissioners are wondering, yes, the country still has parts where people don’t have access to TV and internet. And there are voters in those places, too.   

2. The orders from the COMELEC as to how the AFP and the PNP would guard the machines inside the polling places were not the same. With other staff, I went around two towns after the PCOS machines were delivered to check if they were securely kept inside the schools. The machines were safely locked inside one room at some polling places while some machines were left in the same rooms where the officers stayed, with the doors partially open. The soldiers and policemen in those schools explained that it was the proper way to keep the machines, according to the orders of either COMELEC or Smartmatic technicians.

3. Because the machines had to be guarded, candidates employed at least two types of watchers: pollwatchers, who had almost the same duties as in the last elections, and those who watched over the machines while they were stored. There’s no separate COMELEC resolution as to the qualifications, rights, and duties of the latter.

4. The original schedule of the testing and sealing of the Consolidated Canvassing  System (CCS) in the municipal halls was 8:00 am to 6:00 pm on the 7th of May. It was rescheduled via SMS notice to 7:00 am to 5:00 pm.

The basic components of the CCS are a Dell Nostro 1520 laptop, the modem (used in the reception of the results from the town’s precincts and in the transmission to the provincial board of canvassers), a projector (provided by the local government unit as per COMELEC resolution) and a small HP printer. A municipal board of canvassers (MBOC) is composed of the COMELEC Election Officer, the town’s treasurer and district school supervisor.

I arrived at around 6:45 am at the Municipal Hall of Samal, talked to the election officer for a few minutes, and found out that the CCS operator (one is assigned for every MBOC) was a former student of mine. (Not really related to the elections: He remembers how I called him up to remind him to attend our classes before he exceeds the allowed number of absences. And recalls how he liked the so-how-do-we-apply-this-in-real-life part of our lessons.) 

Since no sufficient material was available as to the procedure for the testing, I asked them what we were supposed to look at. They told me that we were all in for a surprise. They were not given instructions! Instead, they had to read the protocol for the first time when the CCS box (looked like an Orocan grocery box) was opened.

I thought we would already be able to check whether our candidate’s name was properly encoded in the system. But no, it was only the connectivity that was tested. (If there’s an “x” on the computer icon at the lower right side of the laptop, that means there’s a problem with the signal.) We would only get to see the names and numbers of votes when the results are printed and that was, of course, a cause of worry for us.

5. The canvassing system projected the precincts on a color-coded table, showing the status of the transmittal of results. Then the numbers of votes were seen in the printouts from the HP printer. Some printers’ toners were not sufficient, the last few copies are not very clear anymore.

One of the significant changes made through the AES is the elimination of pre-proclamation controversies. At the canvassing level, the questions that may be raised are: 1) illegal composition of the board and 2) illegal acts of the board that violate mandated canvassing procedure.

6. If there were people I was most sympathetic with during the elections, they were the members of the Board of Election Inspectors (BEI). I served as a third member (with a chairman and a poll clerk) years ago and had a first-hand experience of how dizzying manual counting was.

In the recent elections, the BEIs didn’t have to go through the long process of counting, thanks to the PCOS machines. But they were still COMELEC’s foot soldiers, facing the ire of voters, legal teams and other groups for every shortcoming and glitch in the new system. They didn’t have enough training and were sent to battle without going through the complete drill required. Imagine how hard that was, protecting something you didn’t fully understand.

That’s the reason why almost all of the paralegals in our team understood that there was no need to be antagonistic with the BEI if the protest can be manifested in another manner. By another manner, we meant explaining the protest in a way that is firm but not condescending and having it recorded in the minutes and forms for evidentiary purposes. For the harder cases, there were the lawyers.
7. The ballots used were very fragile. A little fold and wrong mark could cause rejection by the machine. In one of the polling places assigned to a friend, a voter’s ballot was rejected because while she was filling it out, another voter bumped into her and she unintentionally wrote a line across it. Votes could be wasted because of reasons like lack of space inside precincts.

These were some of the things encountered in our little part of the country during the 2010 Elections. Our team won. HBR led the race by a margin of around four thousand votes. On the way back to Manila, I slept soundly, knowing our district is still in good hands.

I’m wishing for the same thing for the whole country. I also can’t help but wonder how things will be before and on 2016.

Photo by Carlo June Tibayan

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