Nonpartisan Citizen Oversight of Elections in the Philippines

The experience of citizen observer groups during the 2010 Philippine elections points to a number of challenges oversight groups face as they transition from observing paper-based elections to observing elections that utilize electronic voting and counting technologies. In the 2010 national election, these groups observed several aspects of the electoral process, especially during the pre-election stage and on Election Day. However, they faced significant internal and external challenges in effectively observing the mechanics of the new process. The foremost lesson learned was that better coordination and cooperation among civil society actors could have helped pair IT expertise with election-monitoring experience and methodologies to more effectively observe the new election system.

Just as the transition from manual to electronic technologies in the Philippines triggered significant adaptations among EMBs, it also necessitated major changes in the organizational structures and methodologies of civil society actors. By 2010, some groups had accumulated decades of experience monitoring manual elections, such as the country’s first observation group, the National Citizens’ Movements for Free Elections (NAMFREL), but they had to quickly attempt to acquire and apply IT knowledge to their efforts. Other groups, including the Center for People Empowerment in Governance (CenPEG), brought their IT expertise to the new electoral environment, but they lacked election observation experience. In addition to the challenge of acquiring IT knowledge, several groups faced challenges observing the election due to a lack of accreditation by the COMELEC, which only provided official accreditation status to one group, the Parish Pastoral Council for Responsible Voting (PPCRV). While many organizations still monitored without accreditation, this greatly restricted observer groups’ access to a number of critical parts of the electoral process.

Despite these internal and external challenges, civil society groups were proactive in promoting transparency and accountability from the early phases, including during legal reforms, system design, and procurement, through Election Day processes and the post-election period. 

In the years leading up to the 2010 elections, as the Philippines adapted its legislative framework and standards to accommodate electronic technologies, civil society organizations such as NAMFREL provided input on reforms. In the pre-election period, IT-focused groups such as CenPEG, through its “Project 30-30”, advocated for measures to improve the integrity of the new automated system. For example, CenPEG attempted to review the source code used for the new automated system. The COMELEC, however, regulated access to the source code and did not agree to have the source code taken out of its headquarters, citing intellectual property rights and security concerns. CenPEG subsequently filed a legal complaint against the COMELEC. The Supreme Court eventually issued a ruling after the elections directing the COMELEC to provide source code access to CenPEG. After years of court battles and negotiations between the COMELEC and Dominion Voting Systems, which owns the source code, the COMELEC offered the source code for public review on May 9, 2013, just four days before the May 13 general elections. Watchdog groups and some political parties commented that the source code release had come too late for a meaningful review.

To monitor the transmission and tabulation processes, several election observation groups had planned to collect the results at the precinct level and compare them to the precinct-level results published on the COMELEC’s website. However, the comparison of results for a sizeable portion of precincts was not possible, in part because observers were not able to collect election results in many locations. In a number of cases, poll workers refused to provide PPCRV’s accredited observers with a copy of the election results. Unaccredited observers from NAMFREL; Bantay Eleksyon, a coalition of 47 organizations formed by the Consortium on Electoral Reforms; and other groups had an even more difficult time entering polling stations and obtaining copies of election results. Another major obstacle was that, on election night, the COMELEC stopped posting precinct-level results to its website after approximately 90 percent of the results had been posted. Then the COMELEC took the data down. Before it was taken down, a group of IT experts created a mirror image of the site and, upon later analysis, found a number of anomalies and missing data. COMELEC has never explained why the full precinct-level results were not released publicly, nor why the website had a number of data errors. This raised serious concerns among some political contestants and citizen observation groups.

Following the 2010 elections, civil society groups reported a number of lessons learned from their observation efforts. In particular, they emphasized the need for better coordination between traditional election observers and IT experts so that they could take advantage of each other’s comparative strengths, knowledge and networks. Citizen observation groups, particularly those which lacked IT capacity prior to 2009, did not sufficiently refine their monitoring methodologies and tools to take into account the new technologies of the 2010 elections. In many cases, they did not have the specific expertise to anticipate where problems or vulnerabilities could occur, or to develop the tools and observer training necessary to collect evidence of these problems. Similarly, IT experts and groups with higher IT capacity did not have the experience or organizational structures of the more experienced observation groups, which limited their ability to effectively observe processes during the days immediately surrounding Election Day.

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