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Comelec mulls withholding Smartmatic payment

Robertzon Ramirez - The Philippine Star
Comelec mulls withholding Smartmatic payment
This photo posted on March 10 shows Comelec Commissioner George Garcia.
News 5 / Greg Gregorio

MANILA, Philippines — The Commission on Elections (Comelec) is studying whether to withhold payment to poll automation provider Smartmatic after some 200 vote counting machines (VCMs) malfunctioned on election day.

Comelec Commissioner George Garcia said the poll body would review their contracts with Smartmatic to determine possible liabilities on defective VCMs before paying.

He said this would not be the first time for the Comelec to withhold payment to Smartmatic, noting the poll body had done it before, pending investigation on the alleged data breach issue of the company.

Garcia said he has yet to find out the remaining financial obligations of the Comelec to Smartmatic, noting the poll body previously withheld the P80-million payment supposedly due to data breach.

He assured the public that the Comelec would release the report for the sake of transparency and as an “exercise of due diligence” since the issue involves public funds.

Garcia said around 200 VCMs and more than 100 secure digital (SD) cards encountered problems, affecting around 160,000 voters in a polling precinct with around 800 voters.

He said it’s about time Comelec let go of the machines as these were used since the first automated elections in 2010.

Despite all the problems, Garcia said they recorded the fastest transmission of votes since the start of poll automation and the issues on defective VCMs were resolved immediately.

Garcia attributed the “fastest transmission” of votes to the improved system and the resolution of problems encountered during the 2019 midterm elections.

Probe sought

Poll watchdog Kontra Daya described the elections as a failure as it called for an investigation against the Comelec, system contractor Smartmatic and logistics provider F2 Logistics over technical glitches and massive breakdowns of VCMs.

“Kontra Daya continues to hold Comelec, Smartmatic and F2 Logistics accountable for the widespread failure of election equipment, and calls for an investigation to ensure that those responsible will be held accountable,” the group said in a statement.

The group said that as of yesterday, it received 4,000 reports of adverse incidents during the May 9 elections. It said 1,370 of these reports have been verified by volunteers.

It said that of the verified election incident reports, 42 percent or 577 pertained to machine failures.

“Machines have been seen rejecting ballots, failing to issue receipts or breaking down entirely, resulting in long lines and significant delays in voting,” the poll watchdog said.

It said the figure was on top of 152 reports of illegal campaigning, 109 vote buying and 66 red-tagging.

“This proves that despite statements by the Comelec, the 2022 elections continue to be plagued with incidents of fraud and disinformation,” Kontra Daya said.

The group said the high number of reported adverse election-related incidents only proved that the May 9 elections were a failure.

“Kontra Daya maintains that the massive amount of reports received this year only serves to prove the failure of the automated election system in guarding the sanctity of the ballot.”

The group specifically faulted the Comelec, Smartmatic and F2 Logistics over their supposed failure to conduct a “timely, thorough and transparent” testing of the VCMs prior to the elections.

“It is difficult for voters to be confident in election proceedings marred by machine errors and breakdowns, as these cast doubt on the capacity of the machine to count their votes,” the group said.

The group urged the Comelec to replace the current automated election system with one that is “transparent, open source and locally made.”

In a separate statement, international poll watchdog Asian Network for Free Elections (ANFREL) raised concern over the high number of reported technical problems involving VCMs as well as the supposed massive vote buying and illegal use of state resources during the campaign period and online disinformation.

ANFREL said that while it deemed the transmission of preliminary vote results in Comelec’s transparency server to be “timely and seemingly representative of the will of the Filipino people,” the concerns about the results’ trustworthiness have to be immediately addressed.

“We express concerns vis-à-vis the failure of at least 1,867 vote counting machines or related SD cards on election day, a much greater number than in the 2016 or 2019 elections,” ANFREL said.

It said there was “lack of action on the part of the election and law enforcement bodies in enforcing guidelines on vote buying.”

“The exchange of money for votes was also found to be commonplace during campaign events and from conversations with voters,” the group said.

“State resources were found to have been used in support of some candidates, usually incumbents or their relatives, further skewing the playing field. In several instances, ANFREL directly observed candidates using state-owned facilities and resources or benefiting from the support of uniformed police officers for campaigning purposes, whereas some candidates were prevented from accessing public spaces, as local government units denied or delayed granting campaign approvals,” it added.

ANFREL noted that the election campaign “took place in the backdrop of severely curtailed freedom of press and widespread red-tagging.”

“ANFREL also regrets the Comelec’s delays in addressing the petitions for disqualification against Ferdinand Marcos Jr. Two and half months between issuing rulings on such important issues in both the first instance and the appeal is not appropriate in the midst of an election cycle, even more so given that the ruling on the appeals came out the day following election day,” the group said.

Meanwhile, National Security Adviser Hermogenes Esperon Jr. brushed aside claims of supposed irregularities in the recent elections, saying only less than one percent of the VCMs malfunctioned.

Speaking at yesterday’s Kapihan sa Manila Bay news forum, Esperon said the claims of cheating in relation to how the votes for Marcos Jr. and Vice President Leni Robredo stayed at a ratio of 64:32 are baseless.

He said this year’s elections are historic because a majority president and vice president are projected to win with 30 million and 32 million votes, respectively.

“There had been problems admittedly but as I look at the records, only less than 1,000 VCMs were found to have malfunctions. Many of these were repaired. In fact the voting was delayed but nonetheless, voting in those areas was conducted,” Esperon said.

“One percent would translate to a number of votes that even if you would not attribute all the votes coming from these VCMs, that would amount to only one million,” he said.

Esperon said the elections were fair and honest with a record high voter turnout of 88 percent, which means that the Filipino really went out and voted. –  Michael Punongbayan, Elizabeth Marcelo

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