The Supreme Court (SC) has ruled that the Commission on Elections (Comelec) may be compelled to disclose the complete transmission diagram and data network architecture of vote counting machines (VCMs).
In a 22-page decision promulgated in June 2023, the SC En Banc denied the petition filed by the National Press Club, Automated Election System Watch, and Guardians Brotherhood Inc where they sought for Comelec to be compelled to implement the use of digital signatures in the 2022 national and local elections.
They also asked that the Comelec disclose information and allow access to the printing of ballots at the National Printing Office (NPO); configuration, preparation, and testing of the secure digital (SD) cards for VCMs; and preparation testing and deployment of VCMs.
Aside from this, the petitioners wanted Comelec to disclose information and allow access to the National Technical Support Center and technical hubs and transmission diagram or data/communications network architecture, including details of the transmission of the router server and or the “Meet-Me-Room” and all devices and equipment that will be used to transmit election results.
The Court said that the issues have been mooted as the Comelec had voluntarily fulfilled the petitioner’s request before the resolution of the case.
Despite this, the Court said it would rule on the issues due to the public interest involved as well as for the formulation of controlling principles to guide the bench, the bar, and the public.
In its decision, the SC ruled that Comelec may be compelled to disclose the complete transmission diagram and data/communications network architecture of the VCMs.
“We hold, therefore that were it not for the mootness of the issue, the Comelec may be compelled via a writ of mandamus to disclose the complete transmission diagram and data/communications network architecture of the VCMs,” it said.
According to the Court, the credibility of the Automated Election System (AES) Law is directly proportional to the transparency of the entire process.
“While the State aims to protect the secrecy and sanctity not only of the ballot but also of all election, consolidation, and transmission documents, this must be interpreted not in isolation, but in relation to the need for the process to be transparent and credible, and in line with the policy of ensuring not only free, orderly, honest, peaceful and credible elections, but also informed elections,” the SC said.
The SC said that the transmission diagram is a matter of public concern and public interest.
However, the court said that the request for “all details of the transmission of the transmission router server” or the “Meet-Me-Room” was too vague and broad to determine which documents the poll body should disclose.
“The Court held that it cannot compel the Comelec to reveal all details, some of which may contain confidential information which, if divulged, could pose serious security risks,” it said.
It said that Comelec also cannot be compelled to allow physical access to its hubs, servers, and data centers.
“At most, the Comelec may be compelled to provide information regarding its technical hubs and data centers, as it had already done so, but it cannot be compelled to allow what the law clearly prohibits,” it said.
The SC said the poll body may also not be compelled to allow the witnessing of the configuration and preparation of SD cards and VCMs as the AES law does not enjoin Comelec to do so.
“The fact that the law commands the Comelec to provide test ballots and test forms is a clear indication that the examination and testing take place after the configuration of the devices and not during or before said configuration. Certainly, it would be absurd to allow the examination and testing of unconfigured equipment or devices,” it said.
Instead, the court said what may be allowed is the examination and testing of SD cards and VCMs, subject to reasonable security protocols.
Meanwhile, it said that Comelec is also duty-bound to allow designated watchers to witness the printing of the ballot under Section 187 of the Omnibus Election Code.
“As long as the request has been made...it is the Comelec’s ministerial duty to allow the designated watcher/s to observe the printing of the ballots,” the Court said. — RSJ, GMA Integrated News