SECTIONS
Sunday, May 26, 2019

Cheating in the elections: Let me count the ways

IN ELECTIONS past when vote-counting was done manually, candidates who wanted to win at all costs cheated by buying votes, switching ballot boxes with new boxes containing fake ballots, and by having teachers in the polling precincts misread the names of candidates during the counting.

Automation of the elections sought to cure these problems. But since 2010, it has brought a host of other anxieties and possibilities for election cheating as well.

“Theoretically, you can still cheat with the automated system,” said Ramsey Quijano, former president of the Integrated Bar of the Philippines-Cebu.

Now that vote-counting and the transmission of precinct results to the municipal or city level for canvassing are done electronically, gaming the system is being attempted electronically as well.

Quijano, a member of congressional candidate Pablo John Garcia’s legal team, said, “We found unusual entries in the audit log in certain PCOS (Precinct Count Optical Scan) machines in the province of Cebu that would tend to prove that there was fraud in the 2013 elections.”

In 2013, Quijano was part of a group of lawyers and paralegals that volunteered to monitor towns and cities in Cebu Province for fraud on election day.

Not safe

In this year’s elections, the PCOS machines have given way to the vote counting machines (VCMs), which Commission on Elections (Comelec) spokesman James Jimenez himself has admitted “are not 100 percent hack-proof,” Quijano said.

And while the law provides safeguards, these are not enough to thwart the truly determined.

Safeguards in the law include the use of digital signatures by the teachers (Board of Election Inspectors or BEIs) to sign the election returns, the use of ultraviolet security marks on the ballot to prevent fake ballots from being read, and the printing of voter receipts so voters can check that their ballot was read correctly.

Many ways

But Quijano said there are myriad ways cheating could still occur—some before voters even troop to the polling precincts, others using the very same security features intended to protect the ballots to frustrate the aims of voting instead.

Disenfranchisement of voters could happen, for instance, if there is a misdelivery of machines.

“The VCM and the ballots for that machine are precinct specific. If you accidentally or deliberately misdeliver, you can cure that, but you’d have to call the Comelec and that would affect the flow of voting,” he said.

There could also be partial disenfranchisement, he said, if a precinct is provided with defective ballots pre-shaded with invisible ink.

“For instance, if it has been pre-shaded with (the name of presidential aspirant Jejomar) Binay, and you voted for (Rodrigo) Duterte, your vote would no longer be counted.”

This would be considered over-voting, since the position requires only one vote. The votes for that position would not be counted by the machine.

In a polling precinct with 200 ballots, unscrupulous individuals could pre-shade 50 ballots and already affect the election results there, he said.

Who would be in a position to do this? Only those who have early access to the ballot, which means the Comelec, the printers the poll body chose to print the ballots, as well as wily operators of candidates seeking to cheat their way to victory.

Then there’s the case of the defective ballot.

“Ballots have a bar code at the corners. The machine will reject any marking on the code. If you put ink there, tear it, crumple it or deface it, the machine will reject it,” Quijano said.

A voter could get a new ballot if the defect in the ballot was not his fault. But he would have to wait till the end of the voting to see if there are extra ballots left.

“The theory is that it won’t be 100 percent of people who will vote, so the Comelec won’t print more ballots than there are voters,” he said.

Card counter

It’s not just ballots that can be weapons of mass cheating. There’s the SD card as well, which can either be pre-loaded or switched to tamper with the actual results.

The SD card or Secure Digital card (the equivalent of the compact flash or CF card in the 2013 elections) is the memory card inserted into the VCM secured by locks.

“What if they pre-loaded the machines with not clean cards?” Quijano asked.

SD cards contain the configurations. They’re programmed to read ballot specifications like the orientation of the ballot, oval positions and instructions on how to count votes, he said.

“If it’s corrupted or distorted, like if instead of A being counted as candidate A, it’s candidate B that is counted,” then the voter’s true choices would not be reflected in the machine results.

The lawyer found little comfort in the initializing period when BEIs at the start of the voting day has the VCM print a zero report, saying the machine could change its behavior during the counting if its SD card had been tampered with.

Transmission

While in pre-loading, the cheating occurs during the counting, in SD card-switching, the cheating occurs when the votes are transmitted.

If the machine does not transmit the votes to the required servers due to the weak signals of the country’s three major telecommunication firms, then under the law, the teachers (BEIs) should use the satellite-based BGAN or Broadband Global Area Network, Quijano said.

“Watchers should be educated enough to urge them to use the BGAN,” he said.

Comelec has procured BGAN systems for the transmission of election results in areas where there is weak or no signal.

There are 6,000 voting centers nationwide not covered by the transmission signals of the major telcos. Last month, however, Comelec Steering Committee head Commissioner Christian Robert Lim said the poll body had been able to procure only 5,500 BGAN systems. Polling centers close to each other should just share their BGAN systems.

If the results still don’t get transmitted through the BGAN, then the teachers go manual.

“The teacher gets the SD card, puts it in an envelope, marks the envelope ‘Not Transmitted,’ and brings the envelope to the municipality or city, where the contents of the SD card are imported into the laptop or server provided by the Comelec to the municipality. That is where the results will be transmitted,” he said.

Cheating happens if the one who brought the SD card will bring a pre-loaded one to the municipality, he said.

To help prevent SD card-switching, Quijano said, “No one should be allowed near the machine.”

Hacking

Then there’s another set of cheating methods perpetrated by the unseen hand: the hacker.

Quijano said there are four types of cheating hackers can do during the transmission of the votes from the machine to the municipal or city server.

The first is sniffing, where the hacker intercepts the results of the election but won’t alter them. He just wants to knows what’s being transmitted.

The second is called the “Man in the middle,” where the hacker stays in the middle. He receives information from the machine, alters it, then sends different results to the receiver.

The third is the DOS or Denial of Service.

“You cannot send the results,” he said. “You just think your signal is weak, but in fact you’re already being hacked. Then they can switch the SD card.”

The fourth type is called the “Rogue machine.”

“Our servers are programmed to receive only one transmission from every machine. The rogue machine will send pre-programmed results ahead of the actual machine, so that when the real machine sends its results, these will be rejected,” he said.

Quijano cited a case in Biliran Province in 2013 when the PCOS machine was shut down at 8:59 p.m. because it did not transmit the results. So the teachers removed the CF card to bring it to the municipal hall. But at 11:59 p.m., the municipality received a transmission of election results.

“How could that be when the PCOS machine itself had already been shut down? Could it have been hacking or a rogue machine?” he asked.

Theories

He admits that for now, all these electronic forms of cheating are just theories, however, as “there has been no conclusive proof or judicial declaration that there was fraud of this type attendant in the 2013 elections.”

“In an election protest, you can’t pinpoint anymore what type of electoral fraud occurred because what will prevail is the manual recount,” the lawyer added.

Even claims of a supposed uniform 60-30-10 pattern that losing candidates advanced as evidence of systematic cheating to favor senatorial candidates of the ruling Liberal Party in the 2013 election (60 percent of votes went to the Liberal Party, 30 percent to the opposition United Nationalist Alliance, 10 percent to independent candidates) did not gain traction and were abandoned after then Comelec chairman Sixto Brillantes Jr. flatly denied that the results had been programmed.

The problem with theories, however, is that if you can dream them, you can achieve them.

Old ways

What is not theoretical, however, is that automation has not addressed many of the old ways of cheating, like vote-buying, intimidation and terrorism.

Intimidation occurs when voters are threatened with the loss of a job if they don’t vote for a certain candidate, Quijano said.

As for vote-buying, it can be done directly by local officials or through herding, which involves the outsourcing of the gathering of voters for vote-buying to others.

“There is a quota,” Quijano said. For instance, if one can get 20 persons whose votes he can buy, then he can be given the budget for it. Sometimes the money is given to the voters on installment, with the down payment made before the elections and the balance given after the voting. Or the full amount may be given days before the voting.

The sample ballot with the names of the favored candidates is given to the voters together with the money.

Sometimes police are sent to places known to be venues for the distribution of money for vote-buying, he said. Although they make no arrests, this prevents the distribution of the vote-buying funds.

Although it is laudable for law enforcement to prevent vote-buying, Quijano said, this police action becomes harassment when the implementation of this practice is not uniform to all parties.

As for voters who do not need to be paid to vote for certain candidates, they can still be made to do one’s bidding.

“In negative voting, one is paid not to vote. This is done to known supporters who don’t need money to vote for the candidate they support,” Quijano said. “They (vote-buyers) can give P5,000 to P10,000 per household.”

Vote-buying can also be done in more subtle forms.

“Each political party has two watchers, and every candidate is entitled to one. Watchers are usually assigned in precincts where they vote. That’s vote-buying also because they are given an allowance,” Quijano said.

Offering services

It’s not just voters who get offers, though. Candidates do too.

“A lot of people call you offering their service,” said Quijano.

Quijano is part of G7, short for Garcia 7th District, the group of lawyers that will watch out for electoral fraud in Cebu Province’s seventh district, where Pablo John Garcia of One Cebu Party and Provincial Board Member Peter John Calderon of the Liberal Party are vying for a seat in Congress.

Since 2015, Quijano said, he has been receiving text messages from supposed insiders in Comelec and Smartmatic offering help to obtain favorable results in the elections.

“We don’t know if it’s a hoax,” he said.

Smartmatic-Total Information Management Corp. is the lessor of the more than 97,000 VCMs to be used in the 2016 elections and donor of the thermal paper for the voting receipts.

So one can potentially cheat through every person involved in the election process: the voter, through vote-buying; the BEI, poll watcher or anyone else who gets close to the machine, through SD card-switching; the Comelec, its printers and Smartmatic, through the production of pre-shaded ballots or other type of manipulation of results; hackers, who may either be election insiders or outsiders.

So how can one prevent all these types of fraud from happening?

“We just educate (the voters and the poll watchers). That’s what the nongovernment organizations and pastoral councils are doing,” he said.

Beyond that, there really is little left to do.

“You can just trust the process, because you have no choice. You just have to be vigilant,” Quijano said.

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