Not foolproof, but…

SKETCHES - Ana Marie Pamintuan - The Philippine Star

The optical mark reader is the generic name of the voting machine. Smartmatic’s OMR is called the precinct count optical scan or PCOS machine.

What voters will be using in the May 2016 elections therefore is an upgraded version of the PCOS, which was used for the first time in the 2010 general elections and then in the 2013 midterm polls.

This was among the nuggets of information that I got the other day from Andres Bautista, who’s waiting for his confirmation as chairman of the Commission on Elections (Comelec).

As Chairman Andy explained to several STAR columnists, it’s just like upgrading from iPhone 5 to 6: folks, we’re still getting PCOS machines.

With all the flak he and the Comelec have been getting over the P7.9-billion deal with Smartmatic – Total Information Management Corp. (TIM) and a myriad other issues, Bautista has been going around to explain how the poll body reached its unanimous decision to lease OMRs rather than have the 82,000 PCOS machines refurbished.

The lease of brand-new OMRs is, of course, more expensive – by P2.5 billion. This is on top of the monthly P936,320 in warehousing fees for the 82,000 PCOS machines (taxpayers: ouch!). Time constraints and the lack of bidders, Bautista told us, left the Comelec with no choice.

“It became a timeliness issue,” he said. “The biggest challenge facing the Comelec now is time.”

A proposal to try the hybrid voting system, which is expensive at P25-P36 billion, failed an actual test and may not hurdle a legal challenge because the law calls for poll automation, he explained. But more than a legal issue, he said, “I want to argue this from a practical standpoint.”

Meaning, in a country with a large number of voters and so many candidates’ names to write on a ballot, manual or hybrid voting “is too unwieldy,” he explained. “The issues we were considering were cost, timeliness and technical risks.”

Among the risks is that PCOS refurbishment is done manually, which can take some time. Smartmatic could commit to deliver only 10,000 refurbished PCOS by January 2016, with the rest turned over only by April, just weeks before election day. Brand-new OMRs, on the other hand, can be delivered starting Oct. 15, with the Comelec getting all by Jan. 15, leaving enough time for testing.

Smartmatic-TIM has developed its own source code and will no longer rely on Dominion to provide it for 2016. Bautista said the source code would be opened to public scrutiny before Oct. 15, with the second and final review completed by January.

If he had his way, another company would supply the machines, Chairman Andy said.

And if he had his way, he would go for manual voting, which is the cheapest – it continues to prove highly efficient and credible in advanced economies such as Australia, Germany and Ireland. But he notes that these places have smaller constituencies and low poll fraud risks. Manual voting also works better in a parliamentary system where there are fewer names to write on the ballot.

Again, if Bautista had his way, he would support a shift in the system of government, which would require a constitutional overhaul.

But those are big ifs, and it’s now too late even for Charter change in the time of Noynoy Aquino. And the Comelec has a big job to do… with time rapidly running out.

*   *   *

Among Bautista’s first tasks is defending the validity of the deal under which Smartmatic-TIM will supply 93,977 brand-new OMRs for P7.862 billion.

Smartmatic bagged the contract after Spanish firm Indra submitted a non-responsive bid and was disqualified. This raised suspicions that the two companies connived to ensure that Smartmatic would get the deal. But Bautista told us that Infra is even bigger than Smartmatic and the two companies are genuine rivals: “It’s like Ateneo-La Salle.”

Was Smartmatic favored? “Once the supplier is already in the company, it already has a competitive advantage,” Bautista said.

Although no technical expert, he must also vouch for the reliability of machines that cannot be completely free of glitches. Critics are asking: if we’re using PCOS machines again, will we see “hocus-PCOS” in 2016?

The Comelec believes former SGV chairman David Balangue, who now heads the National Movement for Free Elections, will do a good job of assisting the poll body in conducting random manual audits in at least one precinct per voting district.

There will always be doubts about the reliability of machines. But the nation also has a long history of blatant cheating and vote buying in manual elections. At least one former candidate remains convinced that vote padding and shaving or dagdag-bawas has produced a president.

“Dagdag-bawas cannot be done in automated voting,” Chairman Andy told us. Really? Is it foolproof? “Hindi naman (Not really),” he admitted, “but you need a grand conspiracy to do it.”

He wants 100,000 machines for 2016, for a ratio of 600 for every 800 voters. What happens now to the 82,000 old PCOS machines? Bautista hopes to use them in the 2019 elections, when there is no rush to seal a deal to refurbish them.

Aside from defending the Comelec’s selection of Smartmatic-TIM, the poll body is also busy trying to get about 3.8 million voters to have their biometrics taken so they can get their IDs and avoid being disenfranchised in 2016. The number is down from the 9.3 million in May last year; Bautista is expecting up to 1.2 million more to register, with the rest probably having changed residences, already dead (he said), or actually non-existent or ghost voters.

Then there’s the problem of campaign finance. Bautista admitted it is “very difficult” for the Comelec to verify statements of campaign contributions and expenditures that all candidates, win or lose, are required to submit after the elections.

As for premature campaigning, he said it has become a moral rather than a legal problem, and it is up to lawmakers who are beneficiaries of a Supreme Court ruling on the issue to amend the law.

Bautista has found himself constantly trying to reassure the public that the 2016 vote will be orderly and credible.

“We will try to be as transparent as possible,” he told us. “We try our best, we try our best, we try our best… We will follow the law as much as we can.”

The visit to our office was the first for Chairman Andy, who wrote for The STAR for six years.

In greeting, I asked if he had been confirmed by the Commission on Appointments. “Ayoko na yata” – maybe he no longer wanted it, he replied.

It didn’t sound entirely like a joke.












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