CLEAN, honest, inclusive, and credible elections might well turn into just a pipedream when the vote for president, vice president, legislators, and local officials comes up in May 2022.

As it is, the Commission on Elections (Comelec) has already found itself confronted by big back and forward issues: unsettled flawed supplies contracts and weak project management systems that marked the May 2019 elections; five of its seven commissioners, and its executive director, retiring between January next year to February 2022; and an apparently concerted effort by politicians to write finish to its automated-election system or AES.

Claiming fraud was triggered by defective vote-counting machines, politicians from old political clans led no less by President Rodrigo R. Duterte have urged Comelec and Congress to junk the AES and instead revert to a hybrid system of elections, or one that is partly manual and partly automated. But election observers worry that this hybrid system posits opportunities for ballot-box stuffing and snatching, and the dagdag-bawas system driven by the guns, goons, and gold of elections past.

Complicating matters is the fact that the push for ‘hybrid’ elections is unfolding as Comelec prepares for impending major changes among its commissioners. In fact, by the time of the next synchronized presidential, legislative, and local elections in May 2022, the poll body will face a major topline change.

Worse yet, the changing of guards could happen midway in the campaign period.

A razzle-dazzle of appointees coming, going, or serving the unexpired terms of those who quit or moved up make up Comelec’s current top roster.

The seven commissioners in office as of today are:

• Sheriff M. Abas, appointed chairman on April 6, 2018;

• Luie Tito F. Guia, appointed April 20, 2013;

• Rowena Amelia V. Guanzon, appointed April 28, 2015 ;

• Al A. Parreño, appointed April 19, 2013;

• Socorro B. Inting, appointed April 17, 2018;

• Marlon S. Casquejo, appointed June 18, 2018; and

• Antonio T. Kho Jr., appointed August 16, 2018.

Commissioner Al A. Parreño, term ends on Feb. 2,  2020.
Commissioner Luie Tito F. Guia, term ends on Feb. 2,  2020.
Commissioner Rowena V. Guanzon, term ends on Feb. 2, 2022. 

Executive Director, too

Beginning next year and until May 2022, Comelec will see a succession of retirements, leaving only two of the current seven still in the Constitutional agency at the end of that period. But first, on Jan. 1, 2020, Comelec Executive Director Jose M. Tolentino Jr. will mark his 65th birthday and bow out of service.

Tolentino has served as Comelec’s executive director since 2004 and later on also headed the poll body’s Administrative Services Department. In all, he has helped coordinate the conduct of at least six national elections, including the last one last May.

Then, on Feb. 2, 2020, Commissioners Guia and Parreño will retire from the poll body. Their exit will leave only one commissioner, Guanzon, as appointee of former President Benigno S. Aquino III.

Three more will retire on Feb. 2, 2022, or about three months before Election Day: Chairperson Abas, and Commissioners Guanzon and Kho.

The remaining two commissioners -- Inting and Casquejo, both Duterte appointees -- will linger in office until Feb. 2, 2025.

By law, each commissioner can serve a full term of seven years. 

Commissioner Socorro B. Inting, in office until Feb. 2, 2025.
Comissioner Marlon S. Casquejo, in office until Feb. 2, 2025. 
Commissioner Antonio T. Kho Jr., term ends on Feb. 2, 2022.
Chairman Shreiff M. Abas, term ends on Feb. 2, 2022. 

All 4 from Mindanao

The exit of the five commissioners would open the door to two new commissioners next February, and three more in February 2022, all to be appointed by Duterte. This means that by 2022, Comelec will be run entirely by Duterte’s hand-picked commissioners. Also, by 2022, a Comelec dominated by newbies with little or no experience in running national automated elections will administer the vote for the next President of the republic.

Since 2018, Duterte has been busy filling emptied slots in the body, and has so far appointed a new chairman and three commissioners of the Comelec -- all of them from Mindanao.

Two of the four are from his home city of Davao; one other is his fraternity brother. Three of the four have had no experience in administering elections before Duterte sent them to the poll body.

Commissioner Inting, a former Court of Appeals associate justice, comes from Davao City. She had also served as judge in Manila and Makati, prosecutor, and public attorney. (Last May 27, Duterte also appointed Inting’s younger brother, Henri Jean Paul Inting, as Supreme Court Associate Justice. Henri Inting had also served as CA associate justice.)

Kho, who hails from Jolo, Sulu, is a Lex Taleonis fraternity member just like Duterte and resigned justice secretary Vitaliano Aguirre II. Kho had also served as Aguirre’s undersecretary. With Abas’s appointment as Comelec chair in November 2017, Duterte later appointed Kho to fill in the commissioner’s post vacated by Abas.

BusinessWorld newspaper, quoting then Special Presidential Assistant Christopher Lawrence ‘Bong’ Go, reported on July 13, 2018 that Kho’s appointment paper read in part: “Pursuant to the provisions of Section 16, Article VII of the 1987 Constitution and existing laws, you are hereby appointed ad interim commissioner, Commission on Elections, for a term expiring on 02 February 2020 (sic), vice Sheriff M. Abas.”

Abas, a nephew of Mohagher Iqbal of the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), comes from Cotabato City. Abas is the first from Mindanao and the youngest at age 40 to be appointed as Comelec chief. Abas was a lawyer and acting assistant regional director of the Civil Service Commission (CSC) in the former Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (ARMM) when he was appointed Comelec commissioner by then President Aquino in 2015. In November 2017, Duterte chose Abas to chair the Comelec and serve the unexpired term of Juan Andres D. Bautista, who resigned on Oct. 11, 2017 amid allegations by his wife Patricia of unexplained wealth and threats of an impeachment trial in the Senate. Aquino appointed Bautista Comelec chair in April 2015.

Of Comelec’s seven commissioners today, only Casquejo has had some academic training in information technology, and the only one plucked from the ranks of the Comelec. Among his peers, his appointment has raised some eyebrows, however. He had jumped over the heads of more senior career-service colleagues and regional directors when he became commissioner; at the time of his appointment by Duterte, Casquejo was assistant regional director of Davao Region.

Comelec Executive Director Jose Tolentino Jr. turns over to Bangko Sentral officials the source code for machines deployed in the May 2019 elections. Photo from Twitter post of  Ina Reformina, ABS-CBN.

Du30 doesn’t like

If some politicians had their way, though, Casquejo’s IT background would give him little bragging rights over the rest of Commission. That’s because these politicians were not quite pleased with the technical mishaps of the May 2019 elections and have been clamoring for a return to manual polls.

Two weeks after the May 13 poll day, at a public event in Tokyo, Duterte himself had broached an apparently rushed proposal to dump automated elections for a remotely related reason: complaints of alleged anomalies that he traced to Comelec’s technology provider Smartmatic Philippines, Inc. Duterte heaped all the blame on Smartmartic, which was by then just one of Comelec’s suppliers.

A report by the Philippine Communications Operations Office (PCOO) quoted the President as saying: “I would like to advise Comelec now—hindi ko na lang hintayin (I’m not going to wait) —dispose of that Smartmatic and look for a new one that is free of fraud.” He then promised to address the issue in his state-of-the-nation address that was scheduled two months later. “I will assure you,”

PCOO quoted the President saying. “I will bring this matter before the nation. At sabihin ko sa kanila stop it, because you are creating a problem na puputok talaga (I will tell them, stop it, because you are creating a problem that will really explode). " The PCOO said that Duterte continued: “Kasi ang Liberal…sabi nila nadaya sila. Ako sabi nila nadaya rin. And you know it’s creating an environment of hostile attitude against that Smartmatic. You have three years. Kakatapos lang ng election. Palitan na ninyo kasi it is no longer acceptable to me, to the people and even to the congressmen who are here. (It’s because of the Liberal [Party]… They said they were cheated. I was also cheated, they said. And you know it’s creating an environment of hostile attitude against that Smartmatic. You have three years. The elections had just happened. Change it, because it is no longer acceptable to me, to the people and even to the congressmen who are here.)”

The PCOO piece also said, “According to the President, the government should do away with anything that promotes cheating. That’s why, he is recommending that Smartmatic be replaced as Comelec’s technology provider.”

Comelec has been using Smartmatic’s vote-counting machines (VCMs), previously known as precinct-count-optical-scan (PCOS) machines, since the first run of AES in 2010. The poll body has since exercised its option to purchase the Smartmatic machines, and bought the units used in the 2016 elections.

In May 2019, Comelec faced criticisms after a good number of Smartmatic’s vote-counting machines, in addition to the Secure Digital memory cards (SD cards), marking pens, and Voter Registration Verification Machines (VRVMs) of other suppliers that had either malfunctioned, were found to be corrupted, or were not used at all.

Comelec Commissioner Socorro B. Inting attends the oath-taking of her brother Henri Jean Paul B. Inting as associate justice of the Supreme Court. The siblings are both appointees of President Duterte. SC photo

A blast of bills

By June and July, several lawmakers were rushing to file bills largely similar in intent and content, all proposing to shift to a hybrid system of voting in the May 2022 synchronized elections.

Senate President Vicente Sotto III filed Senate Bill No. 7 on the very day the 18th Congress opened last June 30. The bill proposes the holding of a hybrid form of elections through manual voting and counting at the precinct level, and automated transmission and canvassing of results. It was not first time that Sotto filed such a bill.

In June 2018, the senator filed Senate Bill No. 1858 titled “An Act Providing for the Conduct of Hybrid National, Local, and ARMM Elections, Through Manual Voting and Counting at the Precinct Level, and Automated Transmission and Canvassing, and for Other Purposes.”

In his earlier bill filed in 2018, Sotto had argued that the conduct of the past national and local elections was “plagued with numerous unresolved issues and irregularities.” The bill pertained to the series of early transmission of votes from the logs of the Comelec servers on May 8, 2016 and May 9, 2016, prior to the official election day. This bill supposedly seeks “to address the issues reportedly encountered in a fully automated elections system.” According to Sotto’s bill, “in the manual voting and counting proposed in the bill, the public will have an unimpeded view of the real time (sic) input of votes. The total number of valid ballots used and the results will be reflected both in the manual and digital elections returns. In a case of discrepancy, the former shall prevail. The digital elections return will be projected while the entries are being recorded in real time (sic) for the benefit of the viewing public. The voters will be able to ascertain the accuracy between the actual casted (sic) votes and those being transmitted electronically.”

Sotto’s 2018 bill, however, was left pending at the Senate Committee on Electoral Reforms and People’s Participation. His 2019 bill -- practically a verbatim version of his first bill, errors and all -- has been scheduled for public hearing by the same Committee that is now chaired by a neophyte senator and female scion of an old political clan, Maria Imelda Josefa ‘Imee’ R. Marcos. 

Senator Aquilino ‘Koko’ Pimentel III, who chairs the Joint Congressional Oversight Committee on the Automated Elections System (JCOC-AES), meantime has echoed Sotto’s argument, saying that he, too, prefers the use of a hybrid election system in 2022.

“Good point,” Pimentel said in a text message to media, commenting on Duterte’s reported order to dispose of Smartmatic. “I have been thinking along that line, too. We need a new system in 2022. Better if counting can be witnessed at the precinct level.”

Same title, system

At the House of Representatives, last July 1, 9, and 29, several lawmakers separately filed four bills for a singular purpose: the conduct of hybrid elections. All four bills carried an absolutely identical full title: “An Act Providing For The Conduct Of Hybrid National And Local Elections, Through Manual Voting And Counting At The Precinct Level, And Automated Transmission And Canvassing, And For Other Purposes.”

All four bills also proposed the same hybrid system -- manual voting and counting of ballots and automated transmission and canvassing of returns. Interestingly, three of the principal authors of the four bills come from old political families, each with sibling or parent or husband simultaneously sitting in other elective positions.

All four bills have been referred to the House Committee on Suffrage and Electoral Reforms, which is now headed by second-term Rep. Juliet Marie de Leon Ferrer (4th Dist., Negros Occ.). Juliet Ferrer first ran for congresswoman in 2016, succeeding her husband Jeffrey, who had also served as congressman for the same district. Earlier, Jeffrey Ferrer had also been elected mayor of La Carlota City, as a protégé of Nationalist People’s Coalition head, Eduardo ‘Danding’ Cojuangco Jr.

The four bills seeking a shift to hybrid elections in May 2022 are:

• House Bill No. 125, Rep. Dan S. Fernandez (1st Dist., Laguna), principal author, filed July 1, 2019;

• House Bill No. 483, Rep. Cheryl P. Deloso-Montalla (2nd Dist., Zambales), filed July 1, 2019;

• House Bill No. 1784, Rep. Espino, Jumel Anthony I. Espino (2nd Dist., Pangasinan), filed July 9, 2019; and

• House Bill No. 2265, Rep. Pantaleon D. Alvarez (1st Dist., Davao del Norte), filed July 29, 2019.

Alvarez of the Partido Demokratiko Pilipino-Laban (PDP-Laban) party was Speaker in the 17th Congress but was replaced by former President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo, reportedly on the prodding of the President’s daughter and Davao City Mayor Sara Duterte. Fernandez, former mayor of Sta. Rosa, Laguna, ran as a Liberal Party candidate in 2016; and in May 2019, ran and won as congressman under PDP-Laban.

Deloso-Montalla, a lawyer, ran as an LP candidate but has since joined the pro-administration coalition led by the PDP-Laban and Hugpong ng Pagbabago. Last May, her father Amor D. Deloso lost his re-election bid for governor of Zambales to his predecessor, retired police officer Hermogenes Ebdane Jr.

Jumel Espino also comes from a political family. He had served as mayor of Bugallon town in Pangasinan, then ran and won as congressman, under the PDP-Laban banner. His wife Priscilla is now Bugallon town mayor. Jumel’s father, Amado T. Espino Jr., a retired police officer and former Pangasinan governor, was a two-term congressman of Pangasinan’s 5th district. The elder Espino lost in his bid for a third term but elder son Amado Espino III was re-elected as Pangasinan governor in the last election.

More proponents

Much earlier, in June 2018, former Cebu Representative Gwendolyn F. Garcia had also filed a bill similar to Sotto’s. House Bill No. 313, which Garcia and five other lawmakers authored, proposed the conduct of hybrid elections through manual voting and counting at the precinct level to be followed by automated transmission and canvassing of results.

The bill noted that the automated elections was borne out of the desire “to cleanse the process of some of decades-old problems” plaguing the elections such as “padded voter’s registries, disenfranchisement of voters, the general slow and tedious process of manual counting, canvassing and certification of results, the attendant fraud, and the creeping lack of faith in the entire electoral system.”

The conduct of the last three elections, however, “proved more disappointing that fulfilling,” Garcia said in the bill. She argued that Section 2 of R.A. No. 9369 defined the automated polls as “a system using appropriate technology which has been demonstrated in the voting, counting, consolidating, canvassing, and transmission of election results, and other electoral process.” But the Comelec in the 2010, 2013, and 2016 elections, Garcia wrote, failed to comply with this provision. She said that the machines used in previous elections were “mere counting and transmission machines,” as opposed to the voting machine prescribed in the law, which provides for automation from voting to canvassing.

Garcia wrote that Comelec had been unable to implement the automation contemplated and mandated by R.A. No. 9369. Congress thus needs to come up with a viable, less costly, simpler and more acceptable alternative for the coming May 2016 election, she said. This alternative, said Garcia, should be able “to strike a balance between the acknowledged benefits of electronic technology and the time-honored familiarity and proven acceptability of manual elections.”

More recently, Senior Deputy Minority Leader Lito Atienza of Party-List Buhay has supported the renewed calls for a hybrid system. “Let’s have a manual vote, a manual count, but the transmission should be electronic,” news reports quoted Atienza as saying.

Two opposition lawmakers – Akbayan Representative Tom Villarin and Magdalo Representative Gary Alejano – expressed the same sentiments. Alejano wanted a return to the manual-election system. “I suggest that we go back to manual counting at the precinct level to do away with malfunctioning VCMs and SD cards and possible manipulation of codes in the SD cards,” Alejano said in news reports. “This provides a way for poll watchers at the precinct level to verify the counting of votes. Transmission to municipal and national levels will still be done electronically to ensure fast processing.”

Clamor from people?

Seasoned election watchdogs like the National Citizen’s Movement for Free Elections NAMFREL and the Legal Network for Truthful Elections or LENTE have offered more expansive, if also more studied, perspectives on the issue.

NAMFREL Secretary General Eric Alvia, for one, noted that Comelec needs a revamp to be able to address various election issues. Comelec may be able to change its suppliers, he said, but it would not make much of a change if the standard operating procedures are the same. NAMFREL’s idea of Comelec’s reorganization involves having three bodies, each one focused on a specific task: adjudication, policymaking, and election management. Alvia said that this is because Comelec spends half of its time hearing cases.

To be sure, NAMFREL has been a long-standing proponent of the hybrid concept of running elections. In NAMFREL’s view, though, this process involves:

• Manual voting using ballots with blank spaces per contest where the voter writes the names of choices and the ballot to be dropped in a ballot box;

• Computer-assisted vote counting using laptops and LCD projectors to publicly display the progress of the vote tally, thereby doing away with the tally boards pasted on all four walls of school classrooms that served as voting precincts;

• Electronic generation of the election return based on the computer assisted vote count followed by printing of the election returns. The contents of the printed copy of the election returns may be compared with its electronic counterpart displayed via LCD projector;

• Electronic transmission of election returns to the corresponding city/municipal canvassing server; and,

• Automated canvassing and consolidation of election results through the ladderized canvassing hierarchy.

Lawyer Ona Caritos of LENTE, for her part, said that she doesn’t see a clamor from the people to revert to manual voting. Instead, she said, she only sees clamor for hybrid or manual elections from politicians who have lost or had close calls in automated polls.

LENTE is part of the committee that conducted the random manual audit (RMA) of the May 13 elections. The RMA is the process by which auditors manually tally the votes already counted by VCMs in sample precincts. This is being done to ensure that VCMs counted the votes correctly. According to Caritos, teachers from their RMA experience do not want to go back to manual elections.

“Nasaan nanggaling ‘yung clamor (Where is the clamor coming from)?” she asked. “Our legislators are always saying ‘yun ang gusto ng tao pero sino ba ‘yung mga tao (that’s what people want, but who are these people)?”

Caritos said that machines are needed to count votes in order to minimize human intervention, noting that no election result has ever been overturned since the automated system was initiated in 2010. She pointed out that human intervention and protests raise a lot of concerns because these make elections to take longer than usual.

Carlitos then posed this challenge: “Would you want to experiment on a presidential elections? That is our apprehension on that.”