Comelec urged to clarify decision to ban observers, public from monitoring configuration of SD cards at techno hub

The Commission on Elections (Comelec) should explain why it is prohibiting political party representatives, non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and the public from monitoring the configuration of SD cards at its technical hub in Santa Rosa, Laguna when it should be done in “full view” of the public as it has been done before.

Senator Imee Marcos expressed shock at this development after hearing the major electoral security threats that surfaced during the hearing of the Senate Committee on Electoral Reforms on Wednesday, March 9.

Marcos, chair of the electoral reforms panel, questioned why the Comelec diverged from or could no longer implement electoral security checks that had been agreed on, magnifying fears cheating would take place in the upcoming May 2022 elections.

Where observer access was easy in the past, the Comelec is now barring political party representatives, NGOs and the public from monitoring the configuration of SD cards at the technical hub, and which is considered a violation of election laws.

“The Comelec has already configured all the SD cards for Mindanao to Region 4, in total absence of witnesses. Only the SD cards for three regions remain to be processed,” Marcos pointed out during the hearing.

“We all know that SD cards have been the rabbit pulled out of the cheating hat in past elections,” she stressed.

Likewise, Marcos said the Comelec’s decision to create regional technical hubs supposedly to facilitate SD card reconfiguration if voting machines bog down was “never heard of before.”

However, Jeannie Flororita, from the Comelec’s IT department, defended the creation of the technical hubs, assuring senators that “that’s where we copy a specific configuration in case the SD cards becomes defective.” She also cited the strict Covid-19 protocols and the alert levels as among the main reasons why they restricted public monitoring access in the technical hub in Laguna.

Flororita said no reconfiguration will take place in these technical hubs that are placed in different places in the country. Likewise, any activity that they will conduct would be monitored by the Department of Science and Technology (DOST) and the Department of Information and Communications Technology (DICT).

“Wala po (there’s no reconfiguration) ...that is only copying...and the personnel assigned there DOST and DICT. We have a MOA (memorandum of agreement) with DOST and DICT to man the technical hubs,” Flororita told the panel.

But Marcos noted the same lack of transparency is also reflected at the National Printing Office (NPO) which she said was able to print 66.4 percent of the ballots for the May elections without being monitored.

“All this in deep, dark secrecy? There’s a law being violated here,” Marcos declared.

Sen. Aquilino “Koko” Pimentel III said the Comelec should not use the government’s Covid-19 alert levels as an excuse not to allow political party representatives, election observers, nor the public to witness election-related activities within the poll body.

“No matter what the declared level is, no matter what the pandemic situation is, for as long as Comelec is undergoing election-related activities, it should allow witnesses. Ganun po yun eh, that’s the nature of the activity,” Pimentel said.

“The people must be allowed (to observe) so do not use the pandemic as the reason. And then tuloy yung activity which should be open to the people for transparency’s sake,” he further said.

“Comelec, please, do not use Alert Level, because even with the strictest alert level and yet you are able to print ballots, you allow the witnesses,” the Partido ng Demokratikong Pilipino-Laban (PDP-Laban) chairman added.

Marcos echoed Pimentel’s pronouncement, saying “the right of suffrage cannot be compromised by the unwillingness or sense of inconvenience on the part of officialdom to allow witnesses at every juncture of the (electoral) process.”

She further warned that the manipulation of vote counts could also take place on Election Day because the poll body could only partially activate digital signatures in select precincts in the country.

During the hearing, Comelec officials admitted it has failed to acquire the download cables that matched the microchip mechanism called iButtons that it had already purchased.

Marcos said she will call for an executive session and another hearing next week to clear up allegations of data security breaches that could compromise the vote count in the upcoming May 9 elections.

A story released by the Manila Bulletin indicated that hackers were able to access confidential Comelec data on voters and voter precincts, while the National Privacy Commission and the Cybercrime Investigation and Coordination Center declared their initial findings show that a third-party contractor of Comelec has been compromised.