VP recount will help strengthen Philippine democracy

Published April 6, 2018, 10:00 PM

by Mario Casayuran and Vanne Elaine Terrazola

Getsy Tiglao
Getsy Tiglao

By Getsy Tiglao

 

It’s a momentous event, this ongoing vote recount for the vice-presidential post, and it may very well determine our country’s future. We hope election officers involved in the manual recount will do everything above board, and will not give in to political or financial pressure, or to anything else other than the will of the people.

This past week the Supreme Court, sitting as the Presidential Electoral Tribunal (PET), finally began the slow and laborious process of recounting the votes for vice president, following the protest lodged by former senator Ferdinand “Bongbong” Marcos Jr. against Vice President Maria Leonor “Leni” Robredo.

Only 263,473 votes separate the two candidates. This is a razor-thin margin in a country with 54 million registered voters, politically active ones at that, and we commend Marcos Jr. for pushing through with his protest despite the legal obstacles thrown his way.

Unlike in the United States where fewer people are voting, here in the Philippines over 80 percent of registered voters braved the summer heat on May 9, 2016, to line up before their election precincts and vote for their candidates.

While the presidential race of 2016 had Rodrigo Duterte as the runaway winner, the vice-presidential post was fraught with drama from the start. The electronic counting the evening after the polls closed showed Marcos leading over Robredo with about a million votes.

Shortly after midnight, Marcos’ lead was slowly, almost systematically, whittled down. Robredo was declared the winner but has since been heavily criticized for acting like the resident opposition in the executive department, instead of working with the Cabinet as a team player in the difficult task of building the country.

As I’ve said previously, I believe in the principle that the position of vice president in the Philippine setting is a useless one. He or she has no other job other than to wait for something bad to happen to the president. (Hopefully, the planned federal-parliamentary system will do away with this nugatory position.)

It’s worse if the VP does nothing else but badmouth the president and the country, as Robredo did when she recorded the video for a United Nations crowd that lambasted policemen and the government’s anti-illegal drugs campaign. I’m sorry to say, but giving inane speeches, travelling abroad, and posing for magazine covers are not real work.

It took two years but finally the PET ordered the VP recount which is expected to last about three months in three pilot provinces – Camarines Sur, Iloilo, and Negros Oriental.

Depending on the results of the recount in these three areas, the PET will decide whether or not it will order the reopening and further recounting of the remaining 31,047 precincts in Marcos’ poll protest.

Marcos Jr. has a very good chance of winning this time around and if he does he will assume the remainder of Robredo’s term as VP.

Well, that is, if the revisors can read the wet and distorted ballots.

On the first day of the recount at the Supreme Court-Court of Appeals building in Padre Faura, we learned that ballots were found soaking wet inside at least four ballot boxes from Bato, Camarines Sur, the home province of Robredo. Also, at least 40 opened ballot boxes had missing audit logs or record books.

The Commission on Elections has not been able to explain properly why the ballots were wet and why the audit logs were not inside the ballot box as required by law. According to the Marcos camp, this is an indication that the election documents had been tampered with and compromised.

“It is impossible that those have been wet in two years. We need to study how it happened. It means that if someone made those ballots wet, someone opened the ballot box as well,” Marcos Jr. said.

But the Robredo camp, led by the garrulous lawyer Romulo Macalintal, said the ballots were wet because of a storm that supposedly hit Camarines Sur last year.

Nice try, Mr. Macalintal, but there are so many unexplained things here. The ballot boxes are supposed to be weather-proof as specified by the Comelec. They are heavily sealed. The paper stickers outside the box were dry. So why were the ballots inside wet – not just damp, but really wet, and unreadable.

After the elections, the ballot boxes are first stored in the city or municipal treasurer’s office and with a poll protest they go to the Commission on Elections and the SC. All these offices have stone buildings with proper roof structures, so where did the water come from?

On the subject of the audit logs, these are very important election documents. The Robredo camp shouldn’t try and downplay the loss of these logs which record all that happened inside the election precinct, including the time of the electronic transmission of the results.

This is akin to an airplane’s black box, said Marcos lawyer Victor Rodriguez. They record the electoral machine’s activities before, during and after the elections, crucial information in a recount especially if the ballots were destroyed by some mystery water.

Macalintal offered that the audit logs are useless anyway since there are scanned images stored in the secured digital (SD) cards that came with the vote counting machines. How very convenient! These are the same questionable SD cards that the Joint Congressional Oversight Committee showed had discrepancies between the main SD cards and back up cards used in the 2016 elections.

The Marcos camp said the congressional investigation substantiate their findings of “mysterious squares” that appeared on the ballot images, as printed from the electronic copy provided by the PET. Thus ballots with two or more candidates shaded in – supposedly overvotes – are counted in favor of Robredo, they said.

“We discovered in some ballots that if the votes were for me, they were not counted and were considered undervotes. So that’s why the undervotes for the vice presidency were high, more than 3 million. But my opponent got the votes even if these were not supposed to be counted in her favor,” Marcos Jr. explained.

Other apparent irregularities in the last election have been uncovered by the Senate. According to Senate Majority Leader Vicente “Tito” Sotto III, there were at least two instances of early transmission of vote results from the municipality of Libon, Albay and Angono, Rizal, on May 8, 2016. Yes, folks, they were sending out results a day before the elections!

Sotto has called for an investigation into this apparent electoral sabotage, including what he noted was “foreign access” to the election results server. The vote counting machines for the May 2016 elections had been provided by the Venezuelan firm, Smartmatic, which has been widely criticized by the public for its alleged tampering of voting results.

At the height of the vote counting, Venezuelan Marlon Garcia, head of the technical support team of Smartmatic, reportedly tinkered with the queue servers. He claimed he just changed a typographical error of a “?” to “ñ.” Really now? As far as excuses go, this is up there with “the dog ate my homework,” or “the typhoon did it to the ballot boxes.”

If not for anything else, this VP vote recount will show us the various ways that votes can be manipulated – from the sophisticated electronic tactics from Smartmatic and their local cohorts-clients, to the very obvious, almost panicky mode of dousing water on ballots and stealing logbooks.

We should learn from all these as part of our democratic growing-up process. At the same time, we should charge and jail those who would be found guilty of perpetrating these forms of electoral fraud and sabotage.

 
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