An optical mark reader (OMR) machines, or vote counting machine used in Philippine elections. Image Credit: File photo

Manila: The Philippines on Monday began a manual recount of votes in a vice-presidential election after the son and namesake of former dictator Ferdinand Marcos contested the outcome, while the incumbent assured supporters her win was not in doubt.

Ferdinand Marcos Jr, a former senator popularly known as Bongbong, is furious about having lost to Leni Robredo by about 260,000 votes in a May 2016 election he says was marred by massive cheating.

Many political commentators believe Marcos has ambitions to become president one day, and wanted to use the vice presidency as a stepping stone.

Opinion polls had shown him ahead of the vote for vice presidency, though another poll showed Robredo and Marcos neck and neck in the run up to the vote. The vice president is elected separately from that for the presidency.

Optical mark recognition (OMR) machines used in Philippine elections supplied by London-based electronic voting technology company Smartmatic. - File

The recount, ordered by the Supreme Court, began with Marcos questioning the condition of some ballots from the town of Bato in Robredo’s home province of Camarines Sur.

In February, the Philippine Supreme Court told the Robredo and Marcos camps to observe the sub judice rule after they publicly traded barbs over supposed delays in the ballot recount.

On April 2, the Marcos camp alluded to foul play in the elections.

“In four precincts in the town of Bato, all ballots are wet and thus useless,” he told reporters. He added that the ballots seemed to be “only recently wet”.

Audit logs for most of the precincts were missing, he said, and he had seen a ballot box with a hole sealed with a masking tape.

Fake News

Robredo's lawyer, Romulo Macalintal, denied the allegation of former senator Ferdinand Marcos Jr that ballot boxes from Camarines Sur, the home province of Robredo, were tampered with to delay the ballot recount. Macalintal dismissed the anomalies as "fake news".

The ballot recount for the electoral protest Marcos filed against the Vice President was started by the Supreme Court (SC), acting as the Presidential Electoral Tribunal (PET), on Monday.

Macanlital said in Tagalog: I'm just wondering why Mr Marcos is suddenly saying there are anomalies and the like, right? I say there are no anomalies.... The anomalies Mr Marcos are claiming are just fake news. Don't believe that because that's fake news."

Robredo, meanwhile, said there is nothing to fear about the recount.

“We have nothing to fear because the truth is what we are fighting for,” Robredo, a one-term congresswoman before the 2016 election, said in a speech after a mass service organised by her supporters in the largely Roman Catholic country.

Robredo, who hails from a decades-old political clique that opposes Duterte and helped oust Marcos in 1986, had lodged a counter protest, questioning results in about 8,000 voting precincts.

Although he was not his running mate, Marcos is on good terms with President Rodrigo Duterte, who has made numerous concessions to the Marcos family.

He has constantly praised the leadership of the late dictator, fuelling concern among some Filipinos that he might cling on to power.

Ferdinand Marcos declared martial law in 1972 and held power for 14 years until his removal in a bloodless, military-backed “People Power” uprising.

Electronic voting

In the Philippines, votes are counted electronically since 2010. Voters have to shade an oval preceding the candidate's name on their paper ballot, and have their ballot registered with an Optical mark recognition (OMR) machine. 

While the machine prints a voting receipt, it collects the vote count electronically to be eventually transmitted to the Municipal Board of Canvassers.

For the 2016 general elections, the Commission on Elections leased 94,000 new optical mark recognition (OMR) machines from London-based electronic voting technology company Smartmatic, while the old ones would be refurbished for the 2019 elections, in a contract totalling 7.9 billion pesos. 

Smartmatic also won a 500 million pesos contract for electronic results transmission services. 

The Commission disallows the issuance of voting receipt to voters, although they allowed on-screen verification for 15 seconds. It also shelved its original plans for conduct the balloting in shopping malls, while allowing some limited replacement ballots for voters whose original ballot is rejected by the vote counting machine.

Security provisions

Having received military intelligence reports in July that China might sabotage the elections, in September 2015 the commission sought the production of the voting machines be transferred from China to Taiwan. While manufacturer Smartmatic acquiesced to the request, China denied any sabotage plans, calling it "sheer fabrication." 

The commission partnered with De La Salle University to conduct the source code review, that was said to be more comprehensive than the 2010 and 2013 reviews, which were done just a month and four days ahead of the election, respectively. 

The warehouse of the voting machines and the paper bins was moved to the warehouse of bus company Jam Liner in Sta. Rosa, Laguna. The commission paid 69 million pesos for renting the warehouse. 


Maria Leonor Robredo, a former Congresswoman and widow of an government minister who died in a plane crash, won over Ferdinand Marcos Jr by about 60,000 votes. 

On the eve of Robredo's oath-taking, Marcos filed an election protest, claiming there was massive cheating in the polls.

Aside from dealing with the election protest, Robredo has had other challenges in her first year as vice president – she resigned from the Duterte Cabinet, faced online attacks and rumors, and is now the subject of draft impeachment complaints.

Marcos insists the vice presidency was "stolen" from him. He has been visiting loyalists around the country to thank them for their support during the elections. Even out of office, the former senator updates the public about his activities on social media.

Key moments in their election protest case:

May 6, 2016 – Marcos first floated the idea of cheating in the elections during his miting de avance in Mandaluyong City, where he questioned Robredo's topping the ABS-CBN's survey conducted by Pulse Asia. Other polls at the time showed the two were in a statistical tie.

May 10 to 11, 2016 – At around 3:40 am of May 10, Robredo grabbed the top spot from Marcos in the partial and 

unofficial canvassing of votes. Shortly after, Marcos' representatives called for a news conference and insinuated that Robredo and the Liberal Party "rigged" the elections.

The Marcos camp sustained their allegations against Robredo, saying that the transparency server of the Commission on Elections (Comelec) was tampered with, as proven by the change in the hash code. This opened debates on the infamous hash code issue and statistical explanations on Robredo's surge over Marcos.

Robredo, from the start, denied the cheating allegations. The Comelec also explained that the altered script was only due to a cosmetic change for names with "ñ" appearing with a "?".

May 20 to 24, 2016 – Marcos' representatives, former Abakada representative Jonathan dela Cruz and lawyer Amor Amorado, filed a series of complaints before the Comelec, seeking an explanation for the script change. They also filed a criminal case against Smartmatic and Comelec representatives before the Manila Prosecutor's Office for allegedly violating the cybercrime law.

May 27, 2016 – Robredo emerged winner in the official canvassing of votes, coincidentally on the birthday of her late husband, former interior secretary Jesse Robredo.

June 29, 2016 – Marcos filed an election protest versus Robredo before the Supreme Court (SC), sitting as the Presidential Electoral Tribunal (PET). He contested the results in 27 cities and provinces, covering 39,221 "clustered" precincts which are composed of 132,446 "established" precincts. He also sought the nullification of votes in Basilan, Maguindanao, and Lanao del Sur, where massive poll fraud allegedly occurred. Robredo was sworn in a day after, on June 30, 2016.

July 12, 2016 – The PET ordered the Comelec to safeguard all poll materials in all 92,509 clustered precincts used in the May elections. It also directed Robredo to file her response to Marcos' election protest.

August 15, 2016 – Robredo filed her response and a counter-protest. In her response, the Vice President asked the SC to junk Marcos' protest since the change in the hash code did not affect the election results.

Her lawyers, Romulo Macalintal and Bernadette Sardillo, also argued that Marcos' camp failed to specify how the alleged cheating happened and failed to show evidence of cheating in the Mindanao provinces where he wants votes nullified. On the same day, the Marcos camp filed a manifestation on the Comelec's proposal to strip vote-counting machines (VCMs) and laptops of election data. The former senator's camp argued that this violated the PET order to preserve election paraphernalia.

September 28, 2016 – Manila City Prosecutor Edward Togonon junked the cybercrime complaint filed by the Marcos camp over the hash code controversy. The case was dismissed for lack of merit and insufficiency of evidence.

October to November 2016 – The Comelec began returning 1,356 leased VCMs to Smartmatic on October 27 despite Marcos' earlier manifestations before the PET, opposing the move. The Comelec had told the PET on October 22 that these were unused VCMs that were given to the poll body for contingency.

The Comelec also started data stripping in its warehouse in Sta Rosa, Laguna on October 26. Data were found in these supposedly unused SD cards, prompting Marcos to ask the PET to order the Comelec to bare the SD cards' contents.

January 20, 2017 – Marcos' lawyer urged the PET to move forward with the election protest by setting a preliminary conference where issues will be simplified.

February 16, 2017 – The PET declared Marcos' protest as sufficient in form and substance, and denied Robredo's appeal to junk Marcos' protest. The Philippine Supreme Court allows election recount for defeated Marcos.

February 27, 2017 – Robredo filed a motion for reconsideration on her junked appeal.

March 6, 2017 – Marcos' camp accused Robredo's lawyers of delaying the proceedings. Macalintal has since denied this, saying that they are only correcting the irregularities in Marcos' protest.

April 10, 2017 – The PET ordered Marcos to pay P66 million and Robredo P15.43 million as service fees for the contested precincts. Both were given until April 17 to settle the first installment – P36 million for Marcos and P8 million for Robredo. The second tranche – P30 million for Marcos and P7.5 million for Robredo – is due on July 14.

April 12, 2017 – Robredo's camp filed a motion, asking the PET to defer their payment until an initial recount of votes has been done in 3 provinces to be identified by Marcos. They also argued that Marcos should pay for all the precincts since he is questioning the integrity of the whole automated elections system.

April 17, 2017 – Despite the Marcos camp's earlier pronouncement that they would file a motion for reconsideration on the amount required of them, Marcos paid the first half of the service fee. He said the money was pooled from resources of friends and supporters.

April 20, 2017 – Marcos asked the SC to junk Robredo's counter-protest over non-payment of her service fee.

April 25, 2017 – The PET ordered Robredo to pay the P8-million fee on May 2. It also set the preliminary conference for Marcos' protest on June 21.

May 2, 2017 – Robredo paid the first tranche. She said she used her own money and borrowed cash from relatives.

May 5, 2017 – Robredo asked the PET to remove from its records Marcos' motion to junk her counter-protest over the issue of non-payment.

June 1, 2017 – Marcos once again asks the PET to expedite the process of his election protest. He urges the court to order the decryption and printing of the ballot images from the SD cards used in the 36,465 clustered precincts.

This covers the provinces of Cebu, Leyte, Negros Occidental, Negros Oriental, Masbate, Zamboanga del Sur, Zamboanga del Norte, Bukidnon, Iloilo, Bohol, Quezon, Batangas, Western Samar, Misamis Oriental, Camarines Sur, Palawan, Albay, Zamboanga Sibugay, Misamis Occidental, Pangasinan, and Isabela; plus Iloilo City, Bacolod City, Cebu City, Lapu-Lapu City, Zamboanga City, and the 2nd District of Northern Samar.

June 6, 2017 – The PET postpones the June 21, 2017 preliminary conference and reset it to July 11, 2017. On the same day, the PET orders the creation of a panel of commissioners to preside over matters concerning the 

election case. Retired Justice Jose Vitug was assigned chairperson of the panel with lawyers Angelito Imperio and Irene Ragodon-Guevarra as members.

June 20, 2017 – Robredo's lawyers filed a motion before the PET insisting that Marcos must shoulder the P2.08 billion that the Comelec has incurred because of his election protest.

June 27, 2017 – A group of the Vice President's supporters, named the Piso Para sa Laban ni Leni movement, asked the PET to allow them to pay a portion of her P7-million balance for the election protest.

The petitioners – all awardees of the Ten Outstanding Women Foundation – are former social welfare secretary Corazon Soliman, former human rights commissioner Paulynn Sicam, former Bases Conversion and Development Authority board director Zorayda Amelia Alonzo, award-winning singer Celeste Legaspi-Gallardo, Ateneo de Manila University Press director Karina Bolasco, and Museong Pambata founder Nina Lim-Yuson.

July 5, 2017 – Robredo's lawyers asked the PET to reconsider its earlier decision that the election protest of Marcos is sufficient in form and substance.

July 11, 2017 – Preliminary conference for the electoral protest is held. The PET gives Robredo more time to pay the second tranche of the protest fee required of her. But no new deadline was given yet.

Marcos says in a press conference after the preliminary conference that he is hoping the ballot recount will start by September. Former solicitor general Estelito Mendoza seeks to be a "collaborating counsel" for Marcos.

August 10, 2017 – The PET bars the Piso Para sa Laban ni Leni movement from helping the Vice President pay for her remaining balance in the electoral protest.

August 18, 2017 – The PET grants the Vice President’s motion to defer the second installment of the P16-million fee for the counter-protest she filed against Marcos. The PET says it would direct Robredo to pay the second installment “only after substantial recovery in his (Marcos) designated 3 pilot provinces.”

The court also issues the guidelines in preparation for the ballot revision in the electoral protest. The document contains the composition and hiring process for the members of the Revision Committee, the creation of an Exploratory Mission or Retrieval Team, and the compensation for individuals who will participate in the revision of the ballots.

August 23, 2017 – The Piso Para sa Laban ni Leni movement files a motion for reconsideration urging the PET to reconsider its decision prohibiting them from helping pay the Vice President's remaining balance.

September 5, 2017 – The PET rejects Marcos' first cause of action in the electoral protest and upholds the integrity of the 2016 elections.

On the same day, Robredo's lawyers files an urgent manifestation and motion calling on the PET to order Marcos to pay P2 billion for the Comelec's continued protection of all poll paraphernalia relevant to his election protest.

October 9, 2017 – Marcos submits 8,000 names in his list of proposed witnesses of alleged electoral fraud in the 3 ARMM provinces.

October 12, 2017 – The Robredo camp accuses Marcos of violating the PET's rules when he sought the technical and forensic examination of election data in Basilan, Lanao del Sur, and Maguindanao.

October 23, 2017 – Comelec begins to decrypt and print the ballot images for Marcos' 3 pilot provinces of Camarines Sur, Iloilo, and Negros Oriental.

October 30, 2017 – The PET rules Comelec must pay for the storage fees of election materials kept in foreign posts, not Marcos.

November 7, 2017 – The PET defers action once again on whether or not to allow the forensic and technical examination of election data in the 3 ARMM provinces.

The court also allows Robredo to gain access to the soft copies of the ballot images decrypted from secured digital cards in Camarines Sur, Iloilo, and Negros Oriental.

November 21, 2017 – Macalintal accuses Marcos of "misleading" the PET by including names of unregistered voters in its list of proposed witnesses from the 3 ARMM provinces.

November 23, 2017 – Marcos' lawyers shot back that they put in names of members of the Board of Election Inspectors, who "were named as witnesses – and not as registered voters."

December 5, 2017 – The PET rules only municipal treasurers and election officials will deliver the election paraphernalia to the PET Retrieval Team, who will then bring the ballot boxes to the SC-Court of Appeals Gymnasium in Ermita, Manila for the recount.

January 4, 2018 – Robredo files a motion for clarification and asks the PET that both camps be allowed to send representatives during the ballot retrieval process in the 3 pilot provinces.

January 10, 2018 – In a press conference, Marcos accuses the PET of giving him "unfair treatment." Marcos also denies he will run for senator in 2019, arguing there is no need for it as he already won as Vice President.

January 29, 2018 – Marcos accused Robredo anew of colluding with Comelec and Smartmatic to steal the poll victory. He argued the square marks in the ballot images point to electoral fraud. But the marks are merely among the new features of the ballot introduced in 2016.

Last week of January to first week of February – The Marcos and Robredo camps trades barbs on various media interviews, accusing each other of filing motions to allegedly delay the ballot recount process.

February 6, 2018 – Marcos signs a joint manifestation withdrawing any pending motions before the PET that may delay the ballot recount. He challenged Robredo to sign this document, but her camp refused to do so.

February 8, 2018 – The PET sets the final start of the ballot recount on March 19, 2018. Robredo also files a motion telling the PET they are withdrawing any pending motions that may delay the ballot recount, if any.

February 22, 2018 – The High Court reminds both the Marcos and Robredo camps to observe the sub judice rule and stop making any comments on the pending case.

March 19, 2018 – The recount for Camarines Sur ballots begins.

April 2, 2018 – Manual recount of votes in a vice-presidential election begins after Marcos contested the outcome.