Return to manual elections? Debate rages

Jess Diaz - The Philippine Star

MANILA, Philippines – The law mandates the Commission on Elections (Comelec) to conduct an automated balloting in May and the poll body cannot legally go back to the manual system.

This is according to Senate committee on electoral reforms and people’s participation chairman Aquilino Pimentel III, whose panel has conducted several hearings on preparations for the coming general elections.

“I don’t think the law allows them to go back to the manual system,” Pimentel told a news forum in Quezon City over the weekend.

In one of his committee’s hearings, Pimentel said Comelec officials themselves declared the mandate the law gives them is to conduct an automated or computerized election.

Pimentel said his panel was told that going back to the manual system was not an option.

The Comelec raised the possibility of returning to the old manual system of voting and counting of votes after the Supreme Court (SC) required it to print voter receipts using the vote counting machines or VCMs, formerly precinct count optical scan (PCOS) machines.

Comelec has appealed the SC ruling, which it said would upset its timetable for preparations for the May 9 vote.

Isabela Rep. Rodolfo Albano III said he could not understand why the Comelec is eyeing a return to manual balloting as an option if it is pressed for time in preparing for the coming election.

“I think that starting from scratch to prepare for manual voting and counting would take the Comelec more time than if it continues its preparations for an automated election,” he said.

Albano said the manual system of casting ballots and tabulating the votes would also take longer than if VCMs were used.

“It will be more chaotic and prone to cheating,” he added.

If it were to follow the SC ruling, the Comelec has said it would have to procure new receptacles where the vote receipts would be deposited, retrain members of the board of election inspectors (BEI), procure thermal paper for the receipts, lengthen voting time on May 9 and reconfigure the VCMs’ memory cards.

Pimentel said the poll body does not have to buy new boxes or receptacles to keep the vote receipts.

“They can use the old metal ballot boxes. They can even use paper boxes for as long as the receipts are not taken out of the voting precincts so they could not be used for vote buying or vote selling,” he said.

Pimentel said he does not think that the retraining of BEI members to teach them to print vote receipts would take much time.

“As for extending the voting time, we can have it from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. We can inform voters to vote early so there is no time wasted. As for the reconfiguration of memory cards, they did it before a week or two before the elections. They still have almost two months before May 9. They can do it,” he said.

Pimentel added that for him, the only valid concern the Comelec has raised is complying with the Procurement Law in buying thermal paper.

Pimentel pointed out the bidding process under the law would really take time.

But the law itself provides the solution, as it allows simplified bidding or even a negotiated procurement, he stressed.

Pimentel said he was dismayed by the reaction of Comelec officials to the SC decision.

“They should first try to comply, finds means to obey it, instead of complaining, which was the tendency of the previous Comelec leadership. We have new and younger members of the  commission,” he said.

Even as it is appealing the SC ruling, the Comelec has reportedly starting the process of procuring thermal paper for the vote receipts.

Earlier, Pimentel, Senate President Franklin Drilon and other lawmakers said the Comelec is duty-bound to hold the May 9 election and does not have the legal authority to postpone it.

However, they conceded that the poll body is empowered to extend the voting time.

For Sen. Grace Poe, Comelec is just resorting to alibis.

Poe reminded Comelec – whose disqualification orders against her was also recently overturned by the Supreme Court – that they are mandated by law to conduct automated elections, no less. – With Mayen Jaymalin

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