Comelec pushes for ‘full automation with transparency count’ in 2025 polls

Dwight de Leon

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Comelec pushes for ‘full automation with transparency count’ in 2025 polls

ELECTIONS. A vote-counting machine in the 2019 polls.

Alecs Ongcal/Rappler

'We will change the system by 2025,' says Commission on Elections Chairman George Garcia

MANILA, Philippines – Commission on Elections (Comelec) Chairman George Garcia said the poll body would lobby for “full automation with complete transparency count” for the 2025 midterm polls, but clarified that this does not necessarily mean a push for hybrid elections.

The hybrid election system (HES) – a mode of election that usually combines a manual counting of votes and electronic transmission of results – has been a longtime clamor of some concerned groups that believe the current automated election system (AES) setup is not transparent enough.

One of the main proponents of hybrid elections is Senator Imee Marcos, chair of the Senate electoral reforms committee and sister of President Ferdinand Marcos Jr.

Garcia, speaking before an audience during an election forum conducted by pro-democracy coalition Participate on Monday, March 27, said the commission would release the terms of reference of its proposal in two weeks.

“We will change the system by 2025,” Garcia guaranteed. “Are we advocating for a hybrid system? it may not be. Maybe the machine per se can ensure a transparency count electronically and a transparency count manually.”

“Maybe one machine can also employ a combination of two systems – OMR (optical mark reader) and DRE (direct recording electronic), so that we will be able to use the machines not just for national elections, but special elections and plebiscite,” added Garcia, a longtime election lawyer who once represented politicians like then-vice presidential candidate Marcos.

In OMR, voters use a paper ballot counted by machines; in a DRE setup, voters use a touch screen or touch pad.

Public count?

In past automated polls, after a voter on election day fed his ballot into the vote-counting machine (VCM), the VCM would generate a receipt which the voter could check to determine whether the machine read his ballot accurately.

But Garcia acknowledged that some voters are doubtful as to whether the machine really tallied their votes properly even though the machine read their ballots correctly.

Commissioner Nelson Celis, an IT expert who has long criticized the current AES, said a “public count” is possible in fully automated elections without resorting to a hybrid election setup.

“There’s a notion that when we talk about hybrid, you will use the tara system (manual tallying),” he explained.

Celis said that additional features could be added in the existing OMR setup to add a layer of transparency to the process.

“Like for example, after the closing of precincts, QR codes in voter receipts could be scanned,” he said.

Elections are preparations-heavy, and if the Comelec wants to change the system, it must finalize this year its proposal, so that Congress could consider it, and make budget allocations.

The Comelec is keen on retiring 97,000 aging vote-counting machines, which have been used since 2016. A thousand of these VCMs malfunctioned on election day in 2022, ruining the voting experience of tens of thousands of Filipinos.

Despite this, poll watchdogs National Citizens’ Movement for Free Elections and Parish Pastoral Council for Responsible Voting found no anomalies in their assessments of the highly participated electoral exercise.

A random manual audit of votes for the 2022 polls led by Lente, a process that checks whether vote-counting machines tallied the ballots fed into it accurately, yielded a 99% accuracy.

The Asian Network for Free Elections said lingering issues surrounding the elections were in connection with observer blackout during the early days of ballot printing, the lack of a public docket of election complaints, and the rampant vote-buying, among others. –

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Dwight de Leon

Dwight de Leon is a multimedia reporter who covers President Ferdinand Marcos Jr., the Malacañang, and the Commission on Elections for Rappler.