MANILA, Philippines – The Commission on Elections (Comelec) told lawmakers on Thursday, September 18, that some ballots from a precinct in Nueva Ecija were "tampered" post-election in 2013.
At the hearing conducted by the joint congressional oversight committee on the automated election system (JCOC-AES), Comelec Chairman Sixto Brillantes Jr said there was a case of "post-election tampering and manipulation of the physical ballot" in a clustered precinct in General Tinio.
The operation involved 87 ballots and supposedly indicated that losing senatorial candidate Eduardo "Brother Eddie" Villanueva should have gotten more votes.
Brillantes cited the poll body's report following a manual recount of votes for Villanueva at the Senate on September 3, 10, and 11. Hosted by the JCOC-AES and conducted by Comelec, the recount mirrored the results of an earlier recount ordered by a Gapan City regional trial court in March 2014.
Comelec reported that the 87 physical ballots from CP 19 had shades in the oval beside Villanueva's name, but none on the counterpart decrypted images of the ballots that the PCOS machines scanned on election day.
Going over the physical ballots, Brillantes said that the shades in these contested ballots are "embossed" while all the other shades were not. "When you shade it on election day, [the ink of] the shade is absorbed by the paper. If you use a Comelec marking pen, the shade would be absorbed."
In the case of the "tampered" ballots, the shade on the Villanueva oval could be touched or felt "because the ink was not absorbed by the paper," the election chief said.
There was also an "obvious difference" between the marks on ovals for Villanueva and on the ovals for the rest of the candidates, he added.
"At the time of the 2013 elections, there was really no shade on the ballot, but when it was opened for the purpose of a civil case filed before the Gapan City Regional Trial Court, there was already a shade on the Villanueva oval," Brillantes said, citing the conclusion in Comelec's report.
The poll body would investigate this issue further in the coming weeks, noting that the alleged "tampering" is an election offense. Brillantes said that Comelec would probe the General Tinio municipal treasurer, who had custody of the physical ballots after the May 2013 polls.
However, representatives of Villanueva's supporters replied that no tampering took place.
"The petitioners are pastors, farmers, ordinary people. These are poor people who believe in good faith that Brother Eddie won at least in their precincts," said lawyer Annie Marquez, who represented two of Villanueva's supporters who filed the civil case before the Gapan City court to contest the votes received by Villanueva.
Marquez said that Comelec officials who were present at the trial court "did not even raise the issue of [authenticity] of the ballot, or tampering or the shading of the ballots; no question whatsoever in the minutes."
"My clients never tampered with the ballots. They are poor pastors, they have no access to the ballots. They just want to know the truth," Marquez added.
Jeremiah Villanueva, counsel for candidate Villanueva, said that there is definitely no basis for Comelec's allegation, countering that it was the poll body which cannot produce further proof of tampering.
"They just conclude sweepingly that everything was tampered. Otherwise, they could not prove it," he told Rappler. "Maybe the PCOS machines are the ones that's tampered."
He also chided Brillantes for being close-minded. "How would the elections improve if Brillantes is not open to criticisms or possibilities? He needs to understand that in this age of technology, anything is possible with a flick of a finger. He needs to accept that, so that we could have clean and credible elections in the future," Villanueva said.
Lawyer Villanueva clarified that they are not pursuing whether Villanueva won or lost, but instead are opposing the reuse of PCOS machines for the 2016 polls and in future elections.
"It cannot be trusted anymore. The automated election system being used by Comelec is really flawed," he said.
During the JCOC-AES hearing on Thursday, Brillantes agreed to open all ballot boxes in General Tinio for a manual recount of the entire 2013 senatorial elections at the Comelec office, following a statement by lawyer Marquez that other senatorial candidates in the contested precincts gained and lost votes in the PCOS count, not just Villanueva. – Rappler.com
Michael Bueza is a researcher and data curator under Rappler's Research Team. He works on data about elections, governance, and the budget. He also follows the Philippine pro wrestling scene and the WWE. Michael is also part of the Laffler Talk podcast trio.