[EXPLAINER] Transmission glitches don't necessarily mean electoral fraud
In the 2016 elections, there was huge issue with the Transparency Server when a Smartmatic personnel tweaked a script to correct a character in the names of candidates with “ñ” in them.
Because of this, losing candidate Ferdinand “Bongbong” Marcos Jr filed an election protest with the Supreme Court, assailing the proclamation of Vice President Leni Robredo. He alleged that a new script “was introduced to the transparency server,” which “altered” the hash codes of the packet data of the Commission on Elections (Comelec) and allegedly caused the erosion of his early lead. The case remains pending.
Fast forward to 3 years later, May 13, 2019. As the public was anticipating the results of the senatorial election to flood in, something went wrong with the Transparency Server. After the first packet of election results involving 359 clustered precincts were received at around 6:15 pm, the Transparency Server went silent for 7 hours. Cheating hysteria filled the air.
What is this Transparency Server?
After a precinct closes, the VCM or vote counting machine generates the first 8 copies of the physical election returns (ERs), then transmits the precinct results via the internet to 3 recipients:
- The next-level Board of Canvassers (BOC)
- The Comelec Server
- The Transparency Server
Of the 3, only the transmission to the next-level Board of Canvassers (city or municipality) is the official one. The transmissions to the Comelec Server and the Transparency Server are unofficial and have nothing to do with the official count.
For the official count, the law requires Comelec to do a ladderized system of canvassing, in the following order:
- Clustered Precinct
- City/Municipal BOC
- Provincial BOC
- National BOC
In other words, unlike the transmissions to the Comelec and Transparency servers, the official results are not immediately consolidated at a national scale. They are not immediately transmitted to the National BOC – but the law requires the results to go by the ladder.
The ladderized system of transmission is intended to ensure that all votes are swept and accounted for at one level before they are transmitted to the next level BOC. This is in view of the fact that not all electronic transmissions are successful (only 76% in 2013 and 87% in 2016). In these cases of failed transmission, precincts results have to be manually uploaded by inserting the memory card of the non-transmitting VCM to the Consolidation and Canvassing System (CCS) laptops of the BOC. These manually uploaded results, while accounted for at the BOC, are not accounted for in the Transparency Server and the Comelec Server transmissions.
Why we use Comelec and Transparency servers
If the Comelec Server and Transparency Server transmissions are unofficial and have nothing to do with the official count, then what are their uses?
The Comelec and Transparency servers are redundancies or duplications meant as a checking mechanism should a different or a tampered result is received by the next level Board of Canvassers. The results in the 3 transmissions should at all times be the same. The servers also give the public a real-time preview of the results without waiting for the ladderized canvassing results that are usually delayed by 3 or so days.
The Comelec Server supplies the data to Comelec’s election results webpage, where you can view results at the precinct and BOC levels real-time.
The Transparency Server is where media entities, the watchdog Parish Pastoral Council for Responsible Voting (PPCRV), and political parties harvest their data for their quick counts and monitoring. It has to be clarified that Comelec’s security protocol does not allow direct 3rd-party connection to the Transparency Server either by internet or by physical cable. Those who want to access the data would have to go to the server room, copy or download the data from the server to a USB, take it to their working area, and load the same in their respective computers for results processing and uploading. (This was how Rappler's data and tech team did it. – Ed.)
The 6 pm hiccup in the Transparency Server on May 13 prevented the processing of the data for download by the 3rd-party allowed to access it. While it continued to receive transmissions from all over the Philippines during the 7-hour downtime, it couldn't release them to the PPCRV, political parties, and media entities for processing and reporting, leaving the country blind for the whole duration. (READ: What happened inside the server room)
In those 7 hours of blindness, many theories mushroomed, including the hacking and tampering of results. Parroting the theories of losing candidate Bongbong Marcos in 2016, anti-automation personalities and losing candidates alleged that votes were added to the “winning” candidates and shaved from the losing candidates.
Obsession with unofficial results
My primary problem with these accusations is that they are speaking about the Transparency Server which bears unofficial results. If you want to win, why would you tamper unofficial results? Why not the official? Between 6:15 pm Monday and 1 am Tuesday, when the Transparency Server had a problem, the official results were still at the level of the city and municipal BOCs, not even reaching the level of the provincial BOCs.
This, however, should not be taken to mean that nothing is wrong with it. Of course, the redundancy servers are there as an additional safeguard. But if even this safeguard is removed or “compromised” as alleged, there are nonetheless redundancies or other means of counterchecking the official results.
Apart from the Comelec Server, which also received a separate transmission, 30 physical copies of election returns have been printed both before (8 copies) and after (22 copies) transmission. Results received by the Transparency Server can easily be compared with the ERs issued at the precinct level to check for tampering at the transmission level. So if the VCM transmitted 999 votes for Candidate A and all 3 servers received 999 then, regardless of the 7-hour blindness, it is proof that that results were not compromised during transmission. But if the Transparency Server suddenly credits Candidate A with 1,200 or even just 1,000, a single vote discrepancy in a single precinct would be evidence of vulnerability or tampering.
My problem with this obsession over the Transparency Server is it took away everyone’s attention from the official ladderized transmission that carry the official results. It also took away everyone’s attention from the very accuracy of the count of the VCM, which is under audit in the ongoing mandatory Random Manual Audit (RMA) at the Diamond Hotel. It also took away our attention from the election fraud that we know really happened: massive vote-buying, force, intimidation, violence, mass-shading, pre-shading of ballots, among countless reported cases.
Comelec may have lapses, but these don’t automatically amount to fraud. In elections, fraud would entail changes in the number. Not a single vote change has been shown so far even by the loudest critics of Comelec. Surely, Comelec has to explain and has to cooperate with all the “doubting Thomases” who want to poke their fingers at the Transparency Server and access their logs – which they already did without hesitance.
But until verifiable proof is found or changes in the numbers are shown, Comelec deserves the benefit of the doubt and all the presumption of regularity. All baseless accusations that can erode the people’s trust and confidence in the results, in Comelec, and in the election system as a whole would not only be irresponsible, but dangerous. – Rappler.com
Emil Marañon III is an election lawyer specializing in automated election litigation and consulting. He is one of the election lawyers consulted by the camp of Vice President Leni Robredo, whose victory is being contested by former senator Ferdinand Marcos Jr. Marañon served in Comelec as chief of staff of retired Comelec Chairman Sixto Brillantes Jr. He is a partner at Trojillo Ansaldo and Marañon (TAM) Law Offices.