Et Tu “Hintuturo” – the Biometrics Voters Registration Law a finger away from a clean voters list? (Part 1) 

by  Eric Jude O. Alvia, NAMFREL Secretary General

from NAMFREL Election Monitor Vol.2, No.18

Initiatives towards improving the integrity and quality of the Philippines' voting registry run parallel to efforts in automating Philippine elections. Using fingerprint biometrics in building and sustaining a cleansed voters' database has been around for many years. The effort has spanned four administrations and six national elections and is still currently being pursued.

History of the voters database cleansing project

In July 1992, Operation MODEX (Modernization & Excellence) was initiated under then Comelec Chairman Christian Monsod to include the “systemization of the present method of registration”. Four years had lapsed before President Ramos signed into law in June 1996 Republic Act (RA) no. 8189 or the Voter’s Registration Act of 1996. The act provided for the modernization and computerization of the voters registration list and the appropriation of funds to “establish a clean, complete, permanent, and updated list of voters.” As a result of the law, Comelec embarked on implementing the Voter’s Registration and Identification System (VRIS) project.

Seeing an opportunity with the conduct of the September 1996 ARMM elections, the Comelec’s Management Information Systems (MIS) group piloted the registration of ARMM voters using digital photos of registrants to be used as a feature in the voters registration card and attempted to establish a digital registry for the ARMM.

Although the pilot for automated voting using AIS (later ES&S) Model 150 machines was considered a success, this did not hold true in attempts to systematize and cleanse the ARMM voters list using digital photographs and distribute voters registration cards to address the problem of ineligible voters and multiple registrants.
A Polaroid Studio Express camera seen in this August 1995 file photo, used in piloting the voter's identification card for ARMM voters.
It took a year and a half after the signing of the Voters Registration Law when things got moving again as President Ramos signed Republic Act 8436 or the Act Authorizing the Comelec to Use an Automated Election System in the May 11, 1998 Elections and subsequent national and local elections. Among the key components of the law which aimed to address the problem of multiple registrants and voters, locally known as “flying voters,” include the: 1) implementation of the VRIS project, 2) National Precinct Mapping, and the 3) the implementation
of the Automated Counting and Consolidation of Results System (ACCoRS) project and a Certified Voters’ List Verification. The ACCoRS was eyed by Comelec then as a solution to screen multiple voting.

In September 9, 1999, Comelec issued invitations to pre-qualify and bid for the supply and installation of information technology equipment and ancillary services for its VRIS project. The project was bid out in 2000. Photokina Marketing Corporation (Photokina’s) bid of Php 6.16 billion garnered the highest total weighted score and was later declared the winning bidder.

In spite of the choice of a winning bidder, it took almost a year to award the purchase. In September 28, 2000, Comelec issued Resolution No. 3252 approving the Notice of Award to Photokina.

A month later (October 2000), an independent US-based group Eclipse Laboratories, Inc., tested how resistant the core of driver’s license cards made of “Teslin” was. Teslin was intended to be used by Photokina as it was being used in the Social Security System (SSS) cards. Upon testing, it discovered that the cards can be easily tampered with when heat was applied to the top laminate on the card core resulting in the weakening of the adhesion. This would allow the easy replacement of pertinent personal data through dry letter transfer & a photograph switch before the card was re-laminated.

Just after the test was conducted, then-Namfrel executive director Telibert Laoc alleged that the Comelec Committee on Modernization, headed by former Commissioner Luzviminda Tancangco, deliberately delayed implementation of the ACCoRS project.

A few days later on November 3, Comelec opened the bids for the ACCoRS project but the bid was later rejected in December. Comelec Commissioner Mehol Sadain then submitted a draft of the contract providing a price that did not exceed the certified available appropriation but only covering Phase I of the VRIS project which specified limiting the issuance of registration cards to 1 million voters in pre-selected areas only. The draft contract provided that subsequent completion of the whole project shall be agreed upon in accordance with the annual funds available for it. Later, then-Comelec Chairman Harriet Demetriou issued a memorandum to the Comelec en banc expressing her objections to the contract citing, among others, that the VRIS IDs lacked “provision on tamper-proof securities.”

Other objections covered problems in the VRIS project that were not addressed such as the wrong data on gender, age, erroneous photos in the IDs, and wrong addresses. Most were attributed to encoding error. It was estimated then that at least 20% of the registrants had errors in their registration records.

In February 2001, Photokina wrote to the Comelec requesting formal execution of the contract but then-newly appointed Chairman Benipayo scrapped the VRIS project in May 2001 and announced plans to “re-engineer” the entire modernization program replacing the VRIS project with another version. At this point, it was inevitable that due to the failed biddings, sub-par performance and lack of time, poll automation for the May 2001 elections would be cancelled.

With the assumption as Chair of the Senate Committee on Electoral Reform, Senator Edgardo J. Angara directed in October 2, 2001 the creation of a Technical Working Group (TWG) to assist the Comelec in evaluating all programs for election modernization to include the Photokina contract.

However, this did not dissuade Photokina from filing with the Regional Trial Court, Branch 215, Quezon City a petition for mandamus (Special Civil Action No. Q-01-45405): prohibition and damages against Comelec and all its Commissioners. It cited three reasons for filing the petition. These were: 1) deliberate refusal of Comelec to formalize their contract, 2) accusing Benipayo of committing grave abuse of discretion by junking the VRIS project and implementing his plans to re-engineer Comelec’s entire modernization program, 3) Comelec’s failure to perform its duty under the contract causing it to incur damages since it has spent substantial time and resources in preparation of the bid and the draft contract. Photokina then applied for writs of preliminary prohibitory and mandatory injunction during the hearing of its application for the issuance of a temporary restraining order (TRO). On December 19, 2001, Judge Ma. Luisa Quijano-Padilla issued a resolution granting Photokina’s application for a writ of preliminary prohibitory injunction.

Other groups subsequently raised concerns on the deal. In January 2002, investigative journalists were unconvinced of the cost-effectiveness of the deal claiming the cost of manufacturing 40 million voters’ ID cards under the five-year VRIS project was US$147.89 million or Php7.39 billion (US$1 : Php 50) or triple the cost of the SSS cards, while using the same card core material made from “Teslin”. Moreover, Photokina increased the amount from Php 6.16 billion (1999 bid price) to Php 7.39 billion for “project contingency.”

Intense wrangling for this contract and the modernization was said to be one of the reasons for Benipayo’s unsuccessful attempt to be confirmed as Comelec chair. In June 5, 2002, Benjamin Abalos -former Metro Manila Development Authority Chair, was appointed as Comelec Chair.

In August 2002, Namfrel and other civil society organizations filed an impeachment complaint against Comelec Commissioner Tancangco for alleged graft and corruption, betrayal of public trust and culpable violation of the constitution. The complaint was endorsed by Rep. Monico Puentevella. This was followed by ex-Comelec Chair Benipayo and Commissioners Borra and Florentino Tuason Jr. questioning the decision of the QC RTC Judge Quijano-Padilla before the Supreme Court in September 2002. However, on February 3, 2003 the House of
Representatives voted to dismiss the impeachment complaint of Rep. Puentevella against Commissioner Tancangco.

Despite this stalemate, Comelec finally gained some ground when it adopted through Resolution No. 02-0170, a modernization program or the Automated Elections System (AES) Project for the 2004 elections consisting of three phases. These were: 1)Computerized system of registration and voters validation (biometrics system) of registration, 2)Computerized voting and counting of votes, and 3)Electronic transmission of results.

The VRIS project remained suspended and in limbo for three years. In 2003, it was resurrected as the VVS (Voters Verification System) supplied by a French company Sagem but with limited functionality having no plastic IDs and AFIS capability. The VVS was adopted issuing only a paper ID and VRR (Voters Registration Receipt) but without an AFIS.

Through the years, moves to cleanse the voters list almost grounded to a halt. Between 2004 and 2009, only a biometric capture was conducted covering about 50% of registered voters (about 25+ million voters). No AFIS cleansing was done until late 2009 or early 2010. Attempts of cleansing completion did not make it for the May 2010 elections resulting to the use of a hybrid biometric cum manual CVL database.

In those years, there were attempts to introduce innovative and unconventional solutions to cleanse the voters list. For instance, a recommendation was made by a former Comelec IT official to outsource through AFIS vendors with the incentive of a success-based fee for each record matched regardless of the amount of matching processors that was put to the job to meet the completion deadline for use for the May 2010 elections. However, this proposal was rejected by certain Comelec officials for still unclear reasons.

In September 2009, the Sagem system was abandoned due to its poor performance. Comelec then replaced and awarded a new AFIS contract to the joint venture of Unison Computer System, Inc., Lamco Paper Products Co., Inc., and NEC Philippines, Inc. The Japanese NEC-based system which was installed for both field capture and central database, can now capture the voters' photographs and the digital images of their signatures and fingerprints. Using AFIS cross-matching machines, Comelec could compare the data allowing the identification of double and multiple registrants. However, IT experts believe that the Comelec's new Php 1.6 billion NEC system
AFIS facility has a 90% excess capacity once all the 52 million voter records subjected to an AFIS is completed. This estimated excess capacity assumes the country's annual population growth rate of 2.5% as similar to the increase in the voting population or an increase of 1.3 million per year.

In early 2010, Comelec embarked on subjecting the 35 million biometrically captured voters records through AFIS; however, by then the total registered voters had grown to more than 51 million voters. A partial match is a futile exercise to cleanse the entire voters registry database as gleaned from its experience of spotty results. There were partial success with the Comelec IT department's identification of 43,000 multiple registrants in the ARMM & CALABARZON in January 2010 and the 704,542 voters multiple registrants stricken off from the voters list in March 2010; however, this performance pales in comparison to the estimated 130,000 out of the 1.7 million multiple voter registrants detected in a VVS pilot in 2003. These results do not inspire confidence in the accuracy and capability of the current AFIS system.

The VVS or Voters Registration System rolled out in August 2003 was able to capture nationwide close to 20 million biometric and demographic voter records in 120 days. Despite mixed results, work continued with biometric voters registration reaching 35 million. However, the absence of a law mandating obligatory biometric capture for the remaining 17 million or so voters hampers this completion.

While there is a slew of pending legislation to improve voters registration and cleanse the voters list, the draft bills mainly address the biometric capture and compulsory voter re-registration aspect but falls short in modes to cleanse the voters list and augment the capacity and capability of Comelec to take on this task.