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Comelec confirms: Smartmatic changed server script, but only to fix ñ error

The Commission on Elections on Thursday confirmed that the script of the transparency server was tweaked, but only to correct a character in the names of candidates with "ñ" in them.

The poll body repeatedly said that the change does not affect the results shown by the server, which is under intense scrutiny given a close vice presidential race.

Comelec chief Andres Bautista and senior commissioner Christian Robert Lim faced the media to issue an explanation on the issue, along with Elie Moreno, project director for technology provider Smartmatic.

"The correction involves a mere cosmetic change," Bautista said. "It does not, in any way, change the results, the counting and the canvassing of the results and the source code of the automated election system."

The camp of Sen. Ferdinand "Bongbong" Marcos Jr. on Wednesday alleged that a new script "was introduced to the transparency server," which "altered" the hash codes of the Comelec's packet data.

Marcos is running a close second in the vice presidential race, next to the administration's bet, Camarines Sur Rep. Leni Robredo.

They said Marcos' lead of about 1 million votes began to erode "at a rather distinctive pattern" after the script was introduced.

'Lapse in protocol'

Poll officials, however, said they were not informed nor sought before the change was made.

"Inaamin ng Smartmatic na may pagkukulang sila. I should have been informed about these things, and in fact, even before effecting the change, they should have also announced it to the parties there," Lim said. "There were lapses in the protocol."

In its written explanation, Smartmatic said an observer called the attention of the Comelec IT officer, Rouie Penalba, who was stationed at the Parish Pastoral Council for Responsible Voting Center (PPCRV) in Manila on Monday evening, about the presence of certain question marks in some candidates' names where the letter "ñ" should have appeared.

Penalba notified the Smartmatic technical support team led by Marlon Garcia.

"Upon being notified by the Comelec and after validating that changing the character "?" characters required a minor cosmetic change to appease the observers at the PPCRV Transparency Center, the Smartmatic technical support team addressed the concern by introducing a correction on the script in the presence of everyone present there," wrote Smartmatic project director Elie Moreno.

Both Penalba and the Smartmatic team then announced to everyone inside the PPCRV Transparency Center that the correction was made and all subsequent data packages would reflect the candidates' names with "ñ" instead of "?"

In an interview, he explained that Garcia may have been prompted to quickly act on the problem since it was easy to fix.

"He (Garcia) saw it, so simple, so cosmetic. Look at it also on the engineering perspective. I am an engineer. I am trained to solve problems. So if I see a problem, I automatically try to solve it," Moreno said.


The National Movement for Free Elections (NAMFREL), meanwhile, affirmed the Comelec's claim that the script did not change the results in the transparency server.

"Namfrel is entitled to one copy of the printed ER. Our Systems Group has not found any discrepancy so far and that despite the mismatch of the data pack coming from the Transparency server via its mirror, THERE IS NO CHANGE in the actual values of each ER. Namfrel’s crowd sourced data shows consistency of the ER values as well," the group said in a statement.

"The allegation on fraud is focused on the problem on the hash code. All parties have copies of the ERs from the transparency server. It would be prudent if they can show even a single VCM/ER changed during the time they are complaining about the error."

Namfrel laid the blame on Smartmatic for the last-minute change casting doubt on the process.

"From our research, it seems like there has been character encoding issue specifically on the ñ character and was hastily corrected by someone from the COMELEC/Smartmatic group.  The correction happened after the hash code was generated hence the issue on the mismatch of the hash code.  After a day it was corrected eventually," it said.

"The main and real issue here would be last minute changes in process and codes as well as lack of quality control by Smartmatic. The system is a multi-billion peso system and the error was so amateurish," Namfrel added.

Transmission data

Meanwhile, the poll body on Thursday morning made available to the media graphs that showed the transmission to the Comelec central server on 9 p.m. May 9 and 3 a.m. May 10.



It showed Marcos leading by nearly a million votes 9 p.m. of election night. Most of the areas that were advanced in their transmissions at the time were from Luzon, notably the National Capital Region (NCR).



The second graph, which showed the rate of transmission by 3 a.m. the following day, reflected more transmissions from regions in Visayas and Mindanao. By this time, Robredo had edged over Marcos by more than 16,000 votes.

Bautista has repeatedly said that the election returns are taken in by the server on a "first transmitted, first accepted" basis.

Robredo, Marcos react

Meanwhile, in a press briefing, Robredo’s spokesperson, Georgina Hernandez, said Bautista’s statement should end speculations of election fraud.

“Narinig naman natin si Chairman Andy Bautista at kami ay naniniwala at patuloy na nagtitiwala na malinis ang eleksyong ito at walang dayaang naganap,” she said.

But the Marcos camp, meanwhile, slammed the changes in the script, saying it was against the law.

“They (Comelec) are making light of it. Ang sinasabi parang pinalitan lang daw yung ñ. This is not cosmetic change. This is something that needs to be looked into seriously,” Marcos’ campaign adviser ABAKADA party-list Rep. Jonathan Dela Cruz told reporters in a chance interview.

Dela Cruz further said that the change of the script in the transparency server was also in violation of Republic Act 8436 or the Automated Elections Law.

“Under Article 28, Section 29 of RA 8436 any such tampering is prohibited. And this was done already in the middle of transmission of election returns. This is prohibited by law,” Dela Cruz said.

Article 28 Section 29 of RA 8436 prohibits “utilizing without authorization, tampering with, damaging, destroying or stealing [of] official ballots, election returns and certificate of canvass of votes, electronic devices or components, peripherals or supplies used in the automated elections such as counting machines, memory pack, memory pack receiver and computer set.” —with Kathrina Charmaine Alvarez, Virgil Lopez, Elizabeth Marcelo/JST/APG, GMA News