IT experts bat for Smart(er)matic election system for 2025


INFORMATION technology (IT) experts gathered on November 3 for the Commission on Elections (Comelec) pre-summit session held at the De La Salle University (DLSU), Manila. A series of pre-summits will run up to the actual 2023 election summit scheduled for January 2023. The theme chosen for this event is “Pagtutulungan sa Makabagong Halalan.”

The pre-summit session was attended by select employees of the Comelec’s IT department, executives from the Department of Information Technology and Communications (DICT), officials of the Cybercrime Investigation and Coordinating Center (CICC), and IT practitioners of private companies.

Pre-summit objective

One of the major objectives of the pre-summit is to “solicit the opinions, suggestions and recommendations of experts in the digital transformation of Comelec for an orderly, honest, credible and modernized election system.”

The insights of the private sector on the needed electoral reforms for the Comelec were likewise targeted during the pre-summit. The private sector was represented by IT experts from Tambuli Labs, EastGroup Corp., Globe Telecom, International Information System Security Certification Consortium (ISC2), Philippines Chapter/Kroll, Information Security Officers Group (ISOG), Execture Inc., SQrity Consulting, and Information Systems Audit and Control Association (Isaca) Manila, among others.

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As the moderator of the event, I was tasked to elicit such insights and views from the participants. I was assisted throughout by Mon Reglos and Jan Cortez, with the help of the staff of Comelec Commissioner Nelson Celis.

Pre-summit questionnaire

The IT experts from the private sector were provided with questionnaires prior to the actual pre-summit at DLSU. The three questions asked were: 1) How do you feel about the current registration, voting and counting process?; 2) What do you think is the main issue of the electoral process that can be addressed by technology?; and 3) How do you envision the digital transformation journey of the Comelec?

Following are some of the responses to the questions.

Raymond Cueva (security architecture, engineering and design head, Globe Telecom) said: “Based on my personal observation, although the Comelec has significantly improved the electoral system from manual counting to automated counting, there continues to be long lines, challenges and issues with the registration and voting process, and trust in the results of the counting process. During the voting and counting process, there have been issues with the automated counting machines at precincts as well as speculations on potentially tampered counting algorithms that have created a perception of election fraud in a few provinces/localities. In my opinion, the main issue is on the trust, transparency and reliability of the systems involved in the electoral process. Ensuring a tamper-free, fully validated/transparent and reliable system will significantly help improve the perception and trust in the electoral process. The digital transformation journey should not only consider enhancing, digitalizing, securing the technology that enables the electoral systems but also revisiting processes and opportunities of automating/digitalizing, and enabling/supporting the people that support the electoral process, i.e., ensuring that they are properly trained to handle/operate digital systems, to respond appropriately to potential issues, fraud or challenges.”

Allan Inton (managing director, EastGroup Corp.): “There are still lots of room for improvement, especially in making it hybrid wherein voters can vote via online for those who have access to the gadget and internet, both for registration and voting, to minimize queues as well as give a chance to those who have jobs and classes. A lot of students are being disenfranchised from voting since they are not included in absentee voting and were not allowed to register in precincts near their schools. There are lots of ways now anyway to validate a person’s identity similar to those being used for financial services like banks. Also, there must be complete transparency to voters and have end-to-end visibility and verifiability of votes of each voter until it reaches the central server. The direct or centralized repository of votes rather than manually or sending the votes after closing of voting precincts. Use a technology or solution that will fit or greatly consider the needs, geographical situation and culture of Filipinos not just because the system is being used in another country, but what is it that fits the current situation in the Philippines. I believe in the saying, ‘If there is a will, there is always a way.'”

Ricson Singson Que (chief executive officer, Sqrity) stated: “Could be better. A combination of manu-matic does not leverage the full potential of the available technology. The inefficient and technical problems encountered during the previous elections. The obsolescence of technology should be designed into the digital road map since elections are carried out every six years and technology is updated faster. The road map and technology architecture design should consider this.”

The pre-summit proper was able to tackle only the first question due to a lack of material time and the gamut of responses from the participants. The IT experts’ call for a government-wide data governance strategy, particularly the sharing of citizens’ data between various agencies needing such data.

They lament the lack of cooperation and interaction among the different agencies (e.g., Philippine Statistics Authority, Comelec, DICT), which is vital for the betterment of electoral processes. Appropriate technologies must be in place to address the perceived deficiencies and gaps in the Comelec’s IT systems.

I suggested to the body to create their visions and aspirations relative to election system reforms regardless of the limitations imposed by prevailing laws. Once the technology-driven systems are envisioned, then amendments to the laws can follow.

The matter of transmission logs was brought up during the latter part of the pre-summit session. The IT experts were one in suggesting that the system logs, particularly transmission logs, should be open to the public. In this manner, post-election auditing can be conducted properly. An officer of Isaca commented that there is much to be desired in the present state of post-election auditing. They participated in the Comelec’s random manual audit but said that the auditing itself was “sobrang babaw lang.”

The IT experts unanimously agreed that a multi-vendor approach should be adopted by the Comelec to put a stop to Smartmatic Corp.’s monopoly on Philippine elections. It was jokingly said that we need a Smart(er)matic election system in future elections.

Writ of mandamus

Meanwhile, while the pre-summit was going on, the former acting secretary of DICT, Eliseo Rio Jr., and company filed a petition for a writ of mandamus before the Supreme Court, asking the latter to compel the Comelec to preserve all the transmission logs that were used and generated during the May 9, 2022 national and local elections.

Would the high court give due course to the petition? Would it issue a writ of mandamus later? I will render my personal legal opinion on this matter and publish the same once I get hold of a copy of that petition, probably by next week.

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