Brillantes’ defense of the PCOS also reveals its flaw

A manual recount in Nueva Ecija
H.A. Barrios

Last July 28, Mr. Jarius Bondoc’s column, Gotcha, in the Philippine Daily Inquirer featured the story of a manual recount of the votes cast for senatorial candidate Eddie Villanueva in three precinct clusters in Nueva Ecija during the 2013 elections. The recount was conducted in March 2014 by the Gapan Regional Trial Court and showed a discrepancy of 119 votes between the PCOS tally sheet inside the ballot box (which tallied 781 votes) and the manual recount (which tallied 900 votes.)

Comelec rebuts the recount

This provoked a reply from Commissioner Sixto Brillantes, Jr. (printed in Gotcha, August 18) to the effect that (a) the RTC decision has no value because it lacks jurisdiction, and (b) since the court lacks jurisdiction, then it has no rules of procedure and standards by which to conduct a recount, such as on appreciation of ballots and on how to ascertain that ballots have not been tampered with or substituted post-election. Thus, even if jurisdiction were conceded for argument’s sake, the recount would still be questionable for lack of competence.

Anxious perhaps to drive home the point that recounts must be entrusted only to competent authority using prescribed procedures and standards, he said that “the most common reason for variance (between manual recounts and PCOS data) is human mistake in the manual appreciation of the ballots.” He gave two reasons for this:

  1. “The PCOS is capable of reading votes with precision and accuracy…..Human eyes do not have exactitude.”
  2. “A common mistake by untrained ‘revisors’ is counting all the shades in a multiple slot without first ascertaining if votes exceeded the allowable number.”

He added that there could also be “….post-election manipulation. Meaning, after election, interested individuals may have tampered with the original ballots…” But he pointed out that the Comelec has a counter to this, “….a key feature of the PCOS to counter old tricks. On election day, each PCOS captures the images of ballots and encrypts them in its memory. All the scanned ballot images are forwarded to the Comelec main office in Manila for safekeeping. These can be used to detect tampering….”

What the rebuttal reveals

The commissioner’s rebuttal reveals how deeply the electorate has been delivered into the hands of the machine:

a. Only the machine can read the votes with precision and accuracy, as human eyes lack the exactitude to do so.
b. Only Comelec with the aid of the machine protects us from post-election manipulation.

The implications are most problematic:

  1. Voters lack the competence to fill out ballots properly as their eyes lack the exactitude to ascertain that the precision and accuracy standards of the machine have been complied with.
  2. Since the machine records the votes according to its own standards and voters lack the exactitude to meet these standards, there is a tendency for some votes to be recorded by the machine differently from the intention of the voter. The difference is attributable to human mistake and in case of questions or protests the machine’s version will prevail.
  3. In other words, the system has been designed in such a way that with regard to the appreciation, and therefore accomplishment also, of the ballot, the standard of the machine is higher than the capability of the voter. Thus, even though the machine is supposed to be just a tool for the voter to express his choice, the tool can override him and he can be disenfranchised for failure to meet the standards of the machine.
  4. So, the machine’s version will prevail, but then how do we know that the machine really recorded the votes according to its own machine standards? That fact is not established. The machine’s accuracy in actual performance and the honesty of the persons running the machine are just a Comelec assumption that the electorate is in no position to agree or disagree with. This assumption replaced the verification by the electorate. Did Comelec have the authority to make that replacement?
  5. As regards audits and recounts, they cannot be performed competently, since only human eyes are used in these processes. What’s the value then of the random manual audits?
  6. In fact, since only the machine is capable of precise and accurate appreciation of ballots, there are no human processes to resolve questions and protests regarding the validity of the ballots and the count.
  7. If, however, some people can be trained to read like the machine and will then be employed to resolve questions and protests, who will protect us from these people?
  8. With regard to post-election manipulation, if it is Comelec aided by the machine who protects us from manipulators, then who protects us from Comelec and who protects Comelec from the machine?

These concerns exist because the election process has been taken over by the computerized system. The people’s only role now is to feed ballots into the system, ballots that they are not even competent to accomplish properly. With the people’s participation in the process almost completely taken out, the controls they used to exercise are also out, most significantly the verification of the election returns. When it comes to post-election questions and protests, the electorate has no meaningful role, having no competence to appreciate votes.  It’s only the Comelec and the machine who can resolve such issues. In brief, the apparatus has gone awry and Comelec holds it together with bailing wire. In both the election process and post-election resolution of questions, Comelec has assumed a key role, although it should really limit itself to just setting up and administering the elections, and is not supposed to be a participant in any way.

Empowering Comelec rather than the people

The disempowerment of the electorate is not a new concern but was pointed out long ago by PCOS critics. It manifests itself as gaps or questionable steps in the operation of the system, such as the lack or questionable way of verifying the vote. The problems mentioned above are just further manifestations, but for once it comes from the commissioner himself.

The PCOS system is plagued with these problems because its design clashes with the nature of elections. It was designed not as a tool of the electorate but of Comelec which is not a participant in the election. Comelec has its own all-important mission of enabling the people to exercise the vote without impediment or risk. Every time Comelec gets involved as a participant, it puts its impartiality on the line, erodes the integrity of its function and impairs the people’s sovereign act.

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