A DISASTROUS mess.

That, in a nutshell, is the picture painted by field reports obtained by PCIJ from poll watchdogs National Citizens’ Movement for Free Elections (NAMFREL) and Legal Network for Truthful Elections (LENTE) regarding the pilot testing of the Voter Registration Verification Machines (VRVMs) during the May 13, 2019 elections.

NAMFREL estimates that the number of problematic machines may be as high as 70 percent of the more than 32,000 units deployed, while LENTE documented the various ways the machines malfunctioned on Election Day.

 

LENTE monitored the implementation of the VRVMs in Pangasinan and the Bangsamoro Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (BARMM), which included Lanao del Sur, Maguindanao, Cotabato City, and Tawi-Tawi (Sibutu Island). Focus group discussions were also conducted with Election Officers in the provinces of Basilan and Negros Occidental.

 

One of LENTE’s major findings was that the VRVMs functioned during the Final Testing and Sealing stage or FTS. Done six days before Election Day, the FTS involves a run-through of the process that will take place during the polls. But on Election Day itself, Elections Officers were “very shocked and surprised” that the VRVMs malfunctioned in every way possible. The causes of malfunction were linked to the influx of voters, log-in difficulties, and problems in the “transfer of responsibility” phase and the “validation phase.” The machines were also unable to process the fingerprints and verify the registered voters.

 

LENTE volunteers in Marawi, Maguindanao, Cotabato City, and Tawi-Tawi reported that the machines there worked only for an hour or two and then started to have problems. This, they said, cause delays in the voting process.

 

According to the volunteers, Electoral Board members were troubleshooting the problems on their own because there were too few technical staff deployed to cover all the precincts experiencing problems. Because of the defective machines, the Board members resorted to manual verification using the Election Day Computerized Voters’ List or EDVCL.

In Marawi City, Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs) in the settlement camps were not aware of the VRVM implementation, which caused confusion among the voters.

In Rorogagus Elementary School, Sagonsongan Elementary School, and Dansalan Integrated School in Marawi, IDP voters were unconvinced that the machines came from Comelec. This apparently led to minor and major altercations between voters and watchers. Then again, the machines in these precincts were already not functioning at the onset of voting; hence the EDCVL was used. The same situation was encountered as well in Barangay Taungoh in Sibutu Island, Tawi-Tawi.

 

LENTE’s Election Day reports were validated through focus group discussions conducted in Lanao del Sur Province, Maguindanao Province, Cotabato City, Basilan Province, Cotabato City, and Negros Occidental. According to Election Officers, the intentions of the VRVM project were highly commendable but because of operational problems, the project did not work. But they recognized that the VRVMs in some ways helped lessen risks to Electoral Board members, who were no longer harassed by watchers when names of voters were not found in the EDCVL.

 

Such harassment incidents, however, were still reported in the municipality of Moises Padilla in Negros Occidental, where there was a tight election contest. Based on a focus group discussion, many VRVMs there malfunctioned or encountered problem at the start of voting.

 

NAMFREL field observers on Election Day, meanwhile, submitted reports of VRVM problems in six pilot areas.

 

In Zamboanga City, NAMFREL reported that 80 percent of the VRVMs deployed in the different polling centers malfunctioned. Instead, the Electoral Board there used the EDCVL to manually check the names of the voters.

 

In Cotabato City, NAMFREL field volunteers also observed that VRVMs in most polling centers there did not work and caused confusion and delays. In Vilo Elementary School, P.C. Hill Elementary School, and Rojas Elementary School, voting started past seven a.m. due to VRVM malfunction.

 

VRVMs malfunctioned as early as 8:40 a.m. in several areas in BARMM. NAMFREL observers said that this resulted in long queues, which in turn led to some voters opting to go home instead since many of them were fasting because of Ramadan.

 

In Negros Occidental, VRVM malfunctions took place in several barangays in Kabankalan, including Barangays Robles, Taptap Proper, Lupni, and Sitio Balisong.

 

In Manila, NAMFREL volunteers reported that several VRVMs malfunctioned in Bonifacio Elementary School, Maximo Hizon Elementary School, Cecilio Elementary School, and Lakandula High School.

 

Aside from numerous VCMs malfunctioning in Cavite, there were also defective VRVMs, said NAMFREL volunteers assigned in Tagaytay, Dasmarinas, Naic, Silang, Cavite City, and Bacoor. Most of the schools in Maragondon, Rosario, Tanza, and General Trias did not even have VRVMs, they said.