No security marks on ballots for ARMM

The security of nearly two million ballots for voters in the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (ARMM) may have been compromised after they were printed without the security markings of the National Printing Office (NPO), the Inquirer has learned.

An NPO source confirmed that the ARMM-bound ballots for the May 10 general elections had no NPO security features. The autonomous region consists of the provinces of Basilan, Lanao del Sur, Maguindanao, Sulu and Tawi-Tawi.

Archbishop Oscar V. Cruz and Fr. Joe Dizon of Kontra Daya and sources from two groups the Inquirer interviewed said they had received reports from the Commission on Elections (Comelec) and the NPO that the ballots for the ARMM did not have the government-mandated markings of the NPO.

“The ARMM ballots have no markings,” said the NPO source, who asked not to be named because of the sensitivity of his work.

The NPO employee said there was a plan to put NPO markings, but the machines encountered problems at the start of the printing for the ARMM batch.

Since Smartmatic-TIM Corp., the supplier of the automated counting machines, was pressed for time, it could not wait to redesign or repair the security marks, the source said.

The NPO employee noted that the ones printed after the ARMM batch, the 8.5-inch by 25-inch ballots that will be used for the rest of the country, were given NPO marks. [The ARMM has 1,731,199 voters, or 3.4 percent of the country’s total of 50,723,734 million registered voters.]

The source explained that all official materials that leave the NPO building [on Edsa and NIA Northside Road in Diliman, Quezon City] should have the agency’s security features so that the NPO would be able to authenticate its own product when it is called into question.

The ballots for the ARMM elections were printed from Feb. 7 to Feb. 15, another source said.

Cruz said he received the same report from a Comelec source. “They proudly announced the printing of 1.7 million ballots for Mindanao in case of early elections in the ARMM. But the ballots lacked security markings. And consequently, they are useless,” he said.

Dizon, who said he had met with NPO sources, confirmed the report. He said the ballots for the ARMM only have the markings of the Comelec and Smartmatic-TIM Corp.

NPO chief clueless

But NPO Director General Servando Hizon said he did not know of such reports. According to him, all questions about the printing should be directed to the Comelec.

“Everything about the printing, you should ask the Comelec. That’s the rules given to us,” Hizon said in a phone interview.

Comelec Chair Jose Melo confirmed that there were problems with the placement of NPO marks.

But these were ironed out, he said, when Smartmatic-TIM agreed to put ultraviolet signs on the ballots. Because of alignment problems, however, the marks will not be read by the machines, Melo said.

The Inquirer called Smartmatic-TIM, but company officials could not be reached.

Unlike in past elections, Filipino voters won’t have to write down the names of their chosen candidates in the blank spaces on the ballot paper supplied by the NPO.

Because of the automated balloting, voters will cast their votes for national and local posts by shading the oval space beside the candidate’s name on the ballot. The ballot will be fed into a Precinct Count Optical Scan machine that will record and count the votes.

Another source, a former NPO official who also declined to be identified for security reasons, corroborated the statements of the two prelates.

NPO staff apprehensive

He said NPO employees were apprehensive of the lack of security marks on the ballots for the ARMM.

“Some NPO employees were afraid because of this,” the source added.

Both the source and Cruz noted that Smartmatic-TIM did not factor in the NPO marks in the contract it won from the Comelec.

The company, he noted, wanted the NPO to pay P1 per ballot to have the agency’s marks printed.

The source noted that the ballots for the ARMM had been packed and ready for shipping.

Easy to duplicate

With less than three months before the elections, the poll watchdogs said they were concerned about the news from the NPO, saying it could be used to commit electoral fraud.

The source, a printing expert, said it would be easy to duplicate the ballots, noting that the markings were “weak.”

For one, the paper used did not have embedded security marks of the Smartmatic-TIM and the Comelec. For another, the bar code could not be used as a reliable security tool because it is mostly used for sorting and tracking the ballots.

The former NPO official said that anyone with the right printer and paper could make copies of the ballots. The source also raised the security issue inside the plant.

It would be easy for anyone to pick a ballot, hide it, and sell it to the highest bidder, he said.

Election observers said the Comelec and Smartmatic-TIM should come clean about the fate of the ballots, saying the mistake was a “red flag” and does nothing to assuage fears that the automated elections are geared for failure.

“Where are the ballots now? Were they stored, delivered, or shredded? And what are the security marks? Are these approved by the NPO?” the source said.

“Why was there a mistake in printing? It’s too gross a mistake. There must be a purpose,” Cruz said.

Burned in public

“Those 1.7 million ballots should be burned in public and should be shown in public. They could be used for other purposes,” he added.

The former NPO official said the fraud that he witnessed in Lanao del Sur during the ARMM elections in 2008 could happen again on May 10.

“They photocopied the ballots using high quality paper. This is what they gave to the voters and collected them. The corrupt BEIs [board of election inspectors] hid the real ballots and filled these up and fed them to the machines,” the source said. “They are laying the groundwork for something anomalous.”

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