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Comelec denies cheating in hash code change

Vera Files
Poll chief Andres Bautista says the new script introduced by Smartmatic was purely cosmetic and does not affect election results. Photo by MARIA FEONA IMPERIAL


AMID claims of electoral fraud, the Commission on Elections assured the public the Smartmatic-introduced script in the transparency servers was purely “cosmetic” and would not affect results.

On Thursday, poll chief Andres Bautista told reporters: “I can categorically say there is no cheating going on.”

This was after Smartmatic’s Marlon Garcia, who heads the tech support team, introduced a new script to the transparency servers — where political parties and media outfits draw their quick counts — to reflect the candidates’ names with “ñ” instead of question marks.

But Bautista was mum on the issue of whether Smartmatic, having informed Comelec and the parties only after the change, had broken the law.

Section 35 of Republic Act 9369 bans “utilizing without authorization, tampering with, damaging, destroying or stealing”…“electronic devices or their components, peripherals or supplies used in the AES such as counting machine, memory pack/diskette, memory pack receiver and computer set.”

When asked if Smartmatic’s move constituted tampering, Bautista told VERA Files: “Tampering is a legal term.”

‘Cosmetic change’

At around 7:30 p.m. on May 9, a member of the Rappler information technology (IT) staff approached the Comelec IT staff when he noticed that names of candidates with “ñ” — such as that of the late Ambassador Roy Señeres — had question marks in place.

The Comelec IT staff notified Smartmatic’s Garcia, who corrected the flaw in right there and then.

Political parties, Comelec IT personnel and everyone present in the Parish Pastoral Council for Responsible Voting (PPCRV) command center were informed afterwards.

Speaking before reporters, Smartmatic project director Elie Moreno said: “I believe that is a minor cosmetic thing. As an engineer we are trained to solve problems. Marlon saw a problem and he just went ahead to solve it.”

Change in hash code doesn’t affect results

“The moment you change a script, automatically the hash code will also change — the entire hash, the combination of the script will produce a different hash code,” said Commissioner Christian Robert Lim, who heads the Comelec steering committee.

“Definitely, even if you change one letter of the script it automatically changes the hash code.”

But Lim and Moreno clarified this hash code is different from that of the Automated Election System, which was published by the Comelec. (Read: Just 1 hash code for all vote-counting machines)

“The hash code of the vote-counting machine (VCM) was not changed because nobody touched the VCM. The hash code of the canvassing system was not changed because nobody touched the canvassing system and the hash code of the script is the one (that was changed),” Moreno said.

He said transparency servers are only receivers of results. It is written in the English language and does not understand what the “ñ” character is.

Lapses in protocol

“I think that the issue really is: Should Smartmatic have formally informed Comelec about it?,” Bautista asked.

For lawyer and former Commissioner Gregorio Larrazabal, there might be a problem with protocols because Smartmatic did not inform Comelec beforehand.

“Why was it done after the elections? Why were the political parties not informed? Was it done with authority from Comelec?” Larrazabal told VERA Files.

Sought for comment on the legal repercussions of Smartmatic’s move, Larrazabal said: “They’re engineers working for Comelec. As such, when they do something, they should ask permission from their boss, as normal protocol would dictate, right?”

Lim admitted Smartmatic had its “lapses.”

“I should have been informed that they wanted this change. And in fact, even before effecting the change, (Smartmatic) should have also announced it to the parties there that they’re going to effect the change,” Lim said.

Was the change necessary?

Lim said the poll body is saddened that the issue is being used to “discredit the elections.”

On Wednesday, vice presidential Sen. Ferdinand Marcos claimed a “new script” that was entered into the transparency servers of election returns, which eroded his lead over administration bet Camarines Sur Rep. Leni Robredo. (See PPCRV servers altered, Marcos says)

The change was introduced “while the country” was asleep on election night, the Marcos camp said.

“We all knew before the elections happened that the surveys showed that there seemed to be a landslide in the presidential race. But we also knew that in the vice presidential race, it was going to be close,” Bautista said.

“To me, I don’t know where the doubt is coming from but obviously, since this is a hotly contested political race there will be a lot of political conditioning,” he added.

Moreno said Smartmatic could have done away with the change since it is “absolutely cosmetic and minimal.”

But they went ahead anyway because “it was not going to create any doubt.”

For Lim, however, it only added more fuel to the fire.

Had he been informed prior to the introduction of the script, Lim said he would have advised Smartmatic to ignore the minor flaws.

“I’d rather have stability. I’d rather answer the question of the question mark, rather than the question of the ñ,” Lim said.

Check the data

If there had been a change, Comelec said people can just take one election return (ER) and compare with transparency server to see the same results.

Data aggregated by media networks can be used to countercheck who was leading at 7:30 pm, when the script was introduced, Bautista said.

“Get the data. Get the figures. If there are any allegations of cheating, we would be more than willing to provide the necessary data in order to disprove,” Bautista appealed to the media and the public.

Comelec has yet to compare the results of the Comelec server versus the transparency server in light of claims of differences, Lim said.

On Friday, Comelec will show to members of the media the original script and its hash code, as well as that of the the changed script.

“All the IT experts can use that script and see if it’s going to change the results,” Lim said.

But whether or not Smartmatic broke the law remains a question. Lim said: “Let’s cross the bridge when we get there.”