All Eyes on Comelec: Media on Election “Glitches”

Photo from Comelec’s Facebook page.

THE “GLITCHES” which marred the May 13 elections triggered public dismay, not just among those who supported the opposition, but also those who have held faith with the automation of the ballot. Most Filipinos did not expect the kind of procedural lapses which marred the experience of voters early in the day. After all, this was the fourth automated vote since 2010, and the 2016 ballot is still recalled for its relatively smooth implementation.

With majority of four out of seven members of the Commission on Elections (Comelec) appointed by President Duterte, the issue of due diligence and preparedness or the lack thereof falls on the commissioners as an independent constitutional body. As it was, the midterm polls were riddled with irregularities, from the casting, canvassing and transmission of votes.

The media reported the malfunctioning of several vote-counting machines (VCMs) early enough. But a more serious problem came toward the end of the long day, made longer by the seven-hour disruption in the transmission of election data to the server which gave the consolidated counts available to the poll watchdog organizations and the media. Another controversy arose in the revelation of a so-called “Meet Me room” server which some observers noted may have caused the delay.

Calls for transparency rose quickly from civil society organizations (CSOs), militant groups and poll watchdogs and were recorded in post-election reports.

The media took care to air Comelec’s statements which attempted to allay fears of cheating. But most accounts did not bother to explain the cause of the disruption, or even how it happened. Journalists seemed satisfied with the poll body’s inadequate claim that a “bottleneck” caused the transmission delay. This explanation, however, did not placate critics.

As reports shifted to the proclamation of winners, media left serious questions about the “glitches” still unanswered. Media shifted attention to the proclamation of winners which ironically seemed to dismiss the grave concerns about the credibility of exercise on the whole.

Unfortunately, at this point, the news has moved on to other events. The fact that it would take many years to resolve any challenge to the results have made people wonder whether it would be worth finding out if the transmission delay had an impact on the election results.

But there is another larger goal which the public and the media should bear in mind:

Accountability must not be dismissed. Elections are at the heart of democracy. The agency that is charged with the conduct of the polls must be held responsible. Did Comelec oversee the elections with integrity and transparency?

CMFR monitored the reporting of the Manila broadsheets (Philippine Daily Inquirer, The Philippine Star, and Manila Bulletin), primetime newscasts (ABS-CBN 2’s TV Patrol, GMA-7’s 24 Oras, TV5’s Aksyon, and CNN Philippines’ News Night) and selected cable news programs and news websites from May 14 to 21, 2019.

Post-election Coverage
Comelec: Faulty Machines a Minor Problem

After May 13, Comelec’s default position was to dismiss the impact of any of the glitches as well as the more serious unexplained delay on data transmission on the results.

Reports cited Comelec Chairman Sheriff Abas who said in a press conference on May 14 that 961 VCMs had malfunctioned and at least 1,655 SD cards were defective. Comelec Commissioner Marlon Casquejo added that the SD cards were of “low quality,” while the VCMs were old. Still, Comelec maintained that these were minor problems and that the elections were successful.

However, ANC’s Business Nightly noted that despite Comelec’s positive assessment, the poll body itself admitted that the number of irregularities in the May 13 elections increased compared to those in the 2016 elections. quoted Danilo Arao, convenor of the poll watchdog Kontra Daya, who described the 2019 midterm elections as the “worst ever.” “Kasi hindi lang ito usapin ng magnitude ng breakdown ng vote-counting machines… Kahit isang VCM lang ‘yung mag-breakdown it could lead to the disenfranchisement of voters no matter how few they may be,” Arao said.

Cause of Delay

In a monitor on the Election Day coverage, CMFR noted that while media attempted to look into delay in the transmission of data, reports failed to explain “the system bug” that caused the snafu. They did not have on hand any independent source who had the know-how to explain this in layman’s terms. CNN Philippines stood out for getting the insight of their in-house IT expert on the reported “glitches” but most media were at a loss in making sense of Comelec’s statements.

The media sought the explanation of Comelec Spokesperson James Jimenez, who faced reporters by 11:30 p.m. on May 13. The press conference was covered live by all television networks. Jimenez said that he had asked the Comelec to meet en banc to release Comelec’s error logs as this would explain the cause of the delay.

But the media did not seem to know what to do, as though overwhelmed with the challenge of sorting out the information. Even after Election Day, most media seemed stuck with Comelec’s position that the problems were all minor.

“Meet Me Room”

On May 16, a more serious charge came to light. Poll watchdogs alleged the existence of Comelec’s undeclared server otherwise known as a “meet-me-room” that reportedly caused the unexplained transmission delay. 

At the Kapihan on May 15, election lawyer George Garcia said that the Comelec had operated a “meet-me-room” which he described as a queue server to ensure the smooth flow of data.

Primetime newscasts that evening reported the development but did not indicate the implications of Comelec’s use of the “meet-me-room.”

Later the same day, ANC’s Future Perfect featured as a guest the spokesperson of the long-time poll watch group Automated Election System Watch (AES Watch). Nelson Celis said that meet-me-rooms are against the Omnibus Election Code. “In the Omnibus Election Code, sa manual elections natin, the ballot box goes directly to the municipal board of canvassing. In this case, may intervention, iyong queuing server. It’s not following the omnibus election law,” Celis said. He added that even if Comelec has an explanation for it, meet-me-rooms with undeclared servers are still illegal.

The point of the law cited by Celis is that there should be no disruption in the flow of transmission. Obviously, there was a disruption as seen in the delay of vote counts relayed to the transparency servers. These revelations point to the queue server as having disrupted the mandated free flow of information from source to the public. Celis’ view of the illegality is based on the prohibition of any disruption of the transmittal of the election returns, which given the automated vote should have flowed directly from the canvassers and transparency servers.  

Media’s Silence

The media did not pursue the issue of legality. No other expert lawyers were interviewed on the implementation of the meet-me-room server.

On May 16, in an effort to dismiss the question of its alleged illegal action, Comelec denied that the meet-me-room caused the delay and instead blamed it on a “bottleneck” or avalanche of data inflow to the server. On May 20, PPCRV complicated the issue even further when its chair Myla Villanueva said that based on their audit, data was coming in during the delay when the transparency server went blank.

Media reported the confirmation without pointing out that PPCRV’s statement that while data was flowing, it still did not explain the extended delay; nor did it serve as a denial of the obvious, the period when PPCRV and the public were actually not able to access the data and were ignorant of what was going on.

Media Out-of-their-Depth

Media’s lack of understanding of the technological issues may be understandable. But this does not excuse their failure to get the knowledgeable sources whose views would have helped the public appreciate the gravity of the issue.

Most media allowed resource persons and sources to throw around terms with little effort to understand the meaning of the terms.

The flawed coverage of the big glitch revealed media’s limitations and lack of preparation for the challenge of automated elections. Journalists should be more skeptical and questioning, because they are on the scene and they can reach out to experts.

Even from the start, experts had warned that automation can help prevent cheating or fraud, but if there is intent to cheat, it can be done and it can be done wholesale. Automation requires that journalists look the problem in the eye, see a glitch for what it might suggest or imply.