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Supreme Court asked to stop automation deal

MANILA, Philippines - A group of citizens asked the Supreme Court yesterday to stop the Commission on Elections (Comelec) from signing the P7.2-billion poll automation contract with Smartmatic Corp. and Total Information Management Corp. (TIM) today.

However, Comelec Commissioner Rene Sarmiento said the signing will push through unless the SC issues a temporary retraining order (TRO).

“Unless there is a TRO, we’ll push through as scheduled... since the whole process has been very transparent and done publicly,” he said. “I don’t see any problem.”

The Comelec hopes the SC would resolve the petition “as soon as possible” to remove all obstacles to next year’s automated elections, Samiento said.

Led by UP professor and lawyer Harry Roque, the petitioners said the agreement violated a provision in Republic Act 9369, the Poll Automation Law, that requires a pilot testing of the automation system before its actual implementation.

“The point in this requirement in law is to ensure credibility and dependability of the system to be used in automation of election,” he said.

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“You cannot consign democracy to a company that is not yet tested.”

Speaking to reporters yesterday, Roque said under RA 9369, the Comelec can only implement automation on the condition that this be “for the regular national and local election, which shall be held immediately after effectivity of this Act.”

“The automated election system shall be used in at least two highly urbanized cities and two provinces each in Luzon, Visayas and Mindanao, to be chosen by the commission,” he said, quoting RA 9369.

Roque said they have also found out that the reputation of the Netherlands–based firm is questionable.

Smartmatic was the same provider of automation system for the referendum and controversial election in Venezuela where President Hugo Chavez won, he added.

Roque said an election automation system different from that of Smartmatic’s has already been tested in the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao elections last year.

“Because of this mandatory pilot in poll automation law, we suggest that next year’s election would only be partial since you can only fully automate the election after next year,” he said.

Roque said there was also a violation of rules when Comelec allowed the consortium to submit a “sham agreement.”

“The consortium submitted a joint venture to the Comelec in bagging the project, but the required document they had submitted was incomplete as it did not include details on issue of control and division of profit,” he said.

Roque said these issues were precisely the cause of differences between the two partners in the consortium.

Smartmatic’s system involved an “unsecured process of transmission of data” and “unreliable optical scanner,” Roque said.

Joining Roque in the petition were lawyers Joel Butuyan, Romel Bagares, Allan Jones Lardizabal and Gilbert Andres; Immaculada Garcia, Erlinda Mercado, Francisco Alcuaz, Ma. Azucena Maceda, Alvin Peters and Vencer Crisostomo.

Sarmiento said the Comelec would tap “information technology-capable” individuals to assist the Board of Election Inspectors in overseeing poll precincts.

“Under the (poll automation) law, there should be an IT-capable person certified by the Department of Science and Technology who will assist the BEIs. In regular precincts, the BEIs must be composed of three, including the chairman,” he said. Such precincts have some 200 voters each.

Sarmiento said the IT-capable individuals would be paid their “honorarium” from government offices.

“If it won’t be enough, the Comelec under its plenary powers, can get from the private sectors... We may need some 80,000 individuals (one for each precinct),” he said.

The Comelec will define the parameters within which the IT persons could interfere to “ensure secrecy and credibility and integrity of the whole process,” Sarmiento said.

Lawyers back automation

A group of lawyers calling themselves the Legal Network for Truthful Elections (Lente) and advocating electoral reforms, backed yesterday the automation project.

“What the Comelec needs now is our support. Lente supports poll automation. It has gone through a long process... and if we delay it, if we change the system, we might already lose time,” said Lente national co-convenor lawyer Carlos Medina.

Lente does not subscribe to the automation critics’ contention that computerizing the elections would only lead to “automated cheating.”

“Based on our experience in monitoring the (automated) election in the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao in 2008, ‘dagdag-bawas’ (vote padding-shaving) will be eliminated because the canvassing process is faster... In a matter of hours, canvassing was over and it (is in that stage) that ‘dagdag-bawas’ takes place,” Medina said.

“Instead of helping, it might derail automation and it might cause problem in 2010. So I think at this point, although it is not perfect, we need to support the automation.”

Senators back Roque

Three senators backed yesterday the move of a citizens’ group questioning the poll automation contract between the Comelec and Smartmatic-TIM.

Sen. Francis Escudero has reminded the Comelec that RA 9369 mandates that automation should first be tested in two highly urbanized cities and at least two provinces in Luzon, Visayas and Mindanao before being implemented on a national scale.

“The poll automation contract is still tainted by legal and logistical infirmities, and the nation is no closer to clean and honest elections now than it was two weeks ago,” he said.

Escudero said the law is clear on the process of automating the elections.

“The objective, in fact the spirit, of this law is clear as well: clean and honest elections. Unless and until we resolve these poll automation issues, the promise of clean and honest elections will most likely remain just that, a promise,” he said.

“Automation per se is not a cure-all to fraud and cheating. We should not be forced into a position where we have to agree to an inferior contract for the sake of automation because this may only lead to automated cheating.”

Escudero called on people to be vigilant against poll cheating in the coming elections.

“Cheating can occur whether we have manual or automated polls unless we are vigilant,” he said.

Senate Minority Leader Aquilino Pimentel Jr. said Roque should have a sound case to ensure clean and honest elections next year.

“(It) would be good if he can prove it early enough so there is time to correct whatever is wrong,” he said.

Sen. Francis Pangilinan said the SC could now rule on issues concerning the deal between Comelec, Smartmatic and TIM.

“ It would be good to resolve this issue whether for or against immediately so that we can move forward one way or another,” he said.

“My own view is that we should give the automation process a chance but since the matter is now in court, we appeal for the quick resolution of the case.” – With Sheila Crisostomo, Christina Mendez

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