Bautista defends Smartmatic deal

Sheila Crisostomo - The Philippine Star

MANILA, Philippines - Commission on Elections (Comelec) Chairman Andres Bautista defended yesterday the poll body’s decision to lease all-new optical mark reader (OMR) machines from Smartmatic-Total Information Management (TIM) Corp. saying the deal was “the most prudent approach” to ensuring credible automated elections in May 2016.

“We welcome constructive criticism but I hope they will propose solutions as opposed to placing obstacles in our efforts to conduct credible elections,” Bautista said.

He stressed there is little time left before the nation chooses its next leaders.

“I hope they will realize that time is really of the essence. Elections is just around the corner so I hope they will make sure that our elections are credible,” Bautista said in an interview.

The Comelec chief was reacting to criticism of the poll body’s decision to let Smartmatic-TIM provide – through a lease arrangement – the 93,977 OMR machines for the May 2016 elections. The Comelec decision last Tuesday was contained in Resolution 9980.

He said that while he expects the deal with Smartmatic-TIM to draw criticism, detractors should realize that leasing the machines is the best option especially when “costs, timeliness and technical risk” are factored in.

Comelec has also agreed not to refurbish for the coming polls the precinct count optical scan (PCOS) machines used in the 2010 elections, which are now being kept in a warehouse.

Bautista added leasing all-new OMR machines “is the most viable, practical and safest option to pursue” to ensure credible elections next year.

The 93,977 OMR machines are covered by two contracts, amounting to a total of P8.4 billion.

The first contract – awarded to Smartmatic-TIM last July 31, involves the lease of 23,000 OMR machines for P1.7 billion, and the eventual purchase of the units by the Comelec for P500 million.

The second contract involves the lease of 70,977 OMR machines for P6.28 billion. The poll body does not intend to procure these units after the elections.

According to Bautista, they have not yet issued Notice of Award for the 70,977 OMR units.

“There is no definite schedule yet. We have to finish the contract for the 23,000 machines first,” he added.

The 81,896 PCOS machines to be refurbished would be used in the 2019 mid-term elections, with the 23,000 OMR units to be made available as supplements.

Issues addressed

Comelec Commissioner Arthur Lim, for his part, said the decision of the Comelec not to purchase the 70,977 OMR machines and use the remaining 23,000 units as “supplements” to PCOS machines in the 2019 polls has “sufficiently addressed” his “deep seated misgivings” that the old PCOS machines “were being sacrificed in the altar of commercialism…”

He also admitted his reservation about having a foreign corporation supply the machines for next year’s automated elections.

In parallel bidding for the supply of new OMRs and refurbishing of PCOS machines, “the supplier will naturally be salivating for the product with the bigger ABC (approved budget for contract) and higher margin of profit,” he said.

He stated that “one cannot help but get the impression that as the ABC were far too disparate,” the conduct of parallel biddings for the PCOS and OMR contracts had rendered the refurbishment project “unattractive in the eyes of supplier.”

“These PCOS were leased by Comelec form Smartmatic in 2009 at a cost of P7,191,484,739.48 and purchased in 2012 for P2,130,635,048.15 for a total cash outlay of P9,32,119,784.63,” he noted.

He said a “serious accountability issue” would taint the program if the machines were “left to rot” in a Laguna warehouse, which is being rented by the Comelec for P800,000 monthly.

“In my view, non-use of these PCOS raises serious accountability issue as undue injury would be caused to the government through inexcusable negligence,” he added.

In his concurring opinion, Lim also urged the Comelec to consider a locally developed automated elections systems, like the hybrid Transparent Election System (TAPAT) “which reputedly holds promise for the future.”

“The time is ripe for intense soul-searching on the par of the commission. While foreign technology plays a vital role, is it necessarily a superior one? Assuming it is superior to what we can produce locally, it is worthwhile that the commission entertain other locally invented elections systems,” Lim added.

Bautista, meanwhile, urged eligible youth to register and vote in the 2016 presidential polls, saying they comprise a significant portion of the electorate.

“Young people will make up at least 37 percent of the 2016 electorate and we know that unlike generations past, they have access to high technology and a wealth of information,” he noted.

“More importantly, young people still have the energy and idealism to effect positive change in the country,” he added.

Out of the estimated 54 million voters next year, at least 20 percent are youth.

“Imagine 20 million tech-savvy voters armed with knowledge previously inaccessible during elections. Young people can now look up the positions of candidates on various issues such as education, employment, and health,” he said.

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