So many red flags

HIDDEN AGENDA - Mary Ann LL. Reyes - The Philippine Star

Still reeling from having been admonished by the Supreme Court for committing grave abuse of discretion, the Commission on Elections seems to be at it again.

Just last month, the SC reversed the Comelec’s Nov. 2, 2023 resolution disqualifying service provider Smartmatic-TIM Corp. from participating in any public bidding process for elections, including the P17.9-billion automated election system (AES) contract for the 2025 national and local elections.

According to the SC, Comelec implemented a discretionary qualification regime that was antithetical to the government’s bidding process and which did not comply with its own procedures.

While the SC noted in its ruling that its finding is not enough to nullify the award of the contract to South Korean firm Miru Systems, Comelec said that it will file a motion for reconsideration even as a former member of Congress has filed a certiorari petition asking the Court to declare null and void the contract between Comelec and Miru.

Many have found the award of the P18-billion vote-counting machines contract to Miru disturbing due to the company’s alleged questionable track record, including allegations of election failures in Iraq and Congo that used Miru’s machines although Miru has denied such allegations.

And now, Comelec is about to commit another grave mistake – that is if it proceeds with a plan to award the contract for the procurement of online voting and counting system (OVCS) for its overseas voting in the 2025 national elections to a company that fragrantly failed to meet the bidding rules and requirements.

Comelec will be holding the first-ever internet voting during next year’s elections for Filipinos who are abroad. Online voting will be conducted in 75 countries.

Four bidders submitted their bids for the second round of bidding for the OVCS. These are Indra Soluciones Technologias, the joint venture of SMS Global Technologies and Sequent Tech, Voatz Inc.-EPLDT-Ebizolution joint venture and AMA Group-Dasan-Kevoting JV.

During the opening of the bids, the Comelec special bids and awards committee (SBAC) declared Indra and the AMA JV ineligible due to several reasons, including failure to submit required documents.

The SBAC also determined that SMS Global-Sequent and Voatz-EPLDT-Ebizolution have qualified financial bids.

Despite serious worries raised by members of the technical evaluation committee during the post-qualification, the SBAC announced its last-minute recommendation to award the project to this questionable vendor.

Just like when it disregarded reports of Miru’s faulty devices in countries that have availed of its services during the post-qualification evaluation, Comelec did it again in the case of SMS Global-Sequent.

There were a number of red flags that should have alerted the SBAC that there was something seriously wrong and should have caused SMS-Global’s outright disqualification.

First is SMS-Global’s extremely low bid price of P112 million compared to Comelec’s P465- million budget for the activity and EPLDT’s P435.5-million bid which observers say show  lack of knowledge on SMS Global-Sequent’s part in terms of the deliverables required to perform such a complex activity.

Observers, bidders and industry experts wonder how this low amount can cover the costs of cloud computing hosting for several months, an alternate backup server, full cyber security measures, biometric authentication licenses, 24/7 technical support to voters worldwide, laptops and printers for every embassy and consulates, among others.

Even Comelec conducted extensive market research to set the overall project budget, and two more experienced vendors set their offer much closer to this budget.

By just asking any reputable cloud computing and data security provider in the country, Comelec can confirm that P112 million won’t even cover the cost of the cloud services.

It was likewise learned that during their public demonstrations, Sequent failed to present many of the features required by Comelec in the terms of reference (TOR), which should have been a reason for it to be disqualified.

More alarming is that one of the key requirements of Comelec’s TOR that the system must have been audited by a legitimate third-party certifying agent. Sequent said its system is auditable by anyone.

Equally alarming is the absence of a certificate issued by a government electoral authority that the system has been successful in a prior electoral exercise. In the TOR, Comelec specifically said that this requirement will ensure that the first online voting in the Philippines will not be a testing ground for any of the prospective bidders and to make sure that only those capable of running a secured online voting will be used.

Even if SMS Global-Sequent submitted the lowest calculated bid, the joint venture’s failure to comply with many of the requirements in the TOR is enough reason for the Comelec to disqualify it. Price is not, and should never be the only consideration for choosing the winning bidder for such a very important government project.

For comments, e-mail at [email protected]

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