COMMONSENSE - Marichu A. Villanueva (The Philippine Star) - May 13, 2019 - 12:00am

This is it. There is no more turning back for all the senatorial candidates and thousands more of aspirants in today’s mid-term elections. Poll precincts will open very early at 6 o’clock in the morning and closed shop by 6 o’clock early evening.

In the last elections in 2016, voting run from 7 a.m. to 6 p.m. For today’s national and local elections, all polling precincts will be open to every eligible Filipino voter for a total of 12 hours.

This is not just to exercise but to wield the power of right of suffrage over our elected officials.

The extra hour came after the Commission on Elections (Comelec) decided to increase also the number of voters assigned to a clustered polling precincts from 800 to 1,000 voters to accommodate newly registered or first-time voters.

The Comelec noted an increase in the number of newly registered voters, which added to this year’s 61,843,771 total number of voters in the Philippines. In 2016, it was only at 54,363,844 voters. Added to this are the 1,822,172 overseas Filipino voters all over the world.

Every electoral exercise is an opportunity that we have as voters to decide the fate of these politicians who are candidates in various posts running in today’s national and local polls across the country. It’s all systems go as far as the entire machinery of the Philippine government have organized for this most awaited event, which they have prepared for a long period of time.

That is barring last-minute hitches. From glitches of vote counting machines (VCMs) and other organizational hiccups to unpredictable force majeure disaster, like earthquake or man-made problems, Comelec repeatedly reassured the public they have laid down contingency measure and other back-up plans for every scenario that may prevent the holding today of elections in any part of the country, 

This will be our fourth time to use the automated election system, again using the equipment and technology of Smartmatic. After so much bad publicity it earned from the maiden use of the machines called precinct count optical scanner, or PCOS, during the 2010 presidential elections, the Comelec now refer to them as VCMs. The poll body started calling them VCMs during the 2016 presidential elections.

According to the Comelec, they did the final testing and sealing after adjustments were made on these VCMs because of the 92,000 for use in the 2016 elections, only 85,000 were actually dispatched and operated at polling precincts. The rest will be used as “contingency” units in case any of the VCMs malfunctions.

What the Comelec has not made public declarations yet on the additional one hour is apparently due to the piloting in today’s elections of the  27,747 Voter Registration Verification Machines (VRVMs). This is the biometric machine equipped with fingerprint scanning technology to prevent possible “ghost” and “flying” voters.

Aside from the so-called “3 G’s,” or guns, goons and gold, “ghost” and “flying” voters are the usual villains in every election contests. A “ghost” is one who assumes the right of suffrage of a registered voter who is already dead. A ”flying” voter is a registered voter in one place but who votes in a place where he or she is not registered. Both the “ghost” and the “flying” voter, of course, does these shenanigan for a fee that comes out of the pocket of unscrupulous candidate or political parties pushing for their victory in the election contest.

All that a voter has to do is to put the finger on the biometric scan to determine if he or she is that person registered as voter with that name and identity. Hence, a “ghost” or a “flying” voter can easily be caught right then and there.

We will see how the VRVMs will perform when they get to be pilot tested today in pre-selected polling precincts in Manila, Quezon City, Cavite, Pangasinan, Cebu, Negros Occidental, Davao del Sur, Zamboanga del Sur, Nueva Ecija, and at the five provinces under the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (ARMM).

Speaking of the newly abolished ARMM, there will be no elections for regional governor, regional vice governor and regional assemblymen in the provinces under the newly created Bangsamoro Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (BARMM).  However, ARMM voters in Basilan, Lanao del Sur, Maguindanao, Sulu and Tawi-tawi will still get to vote today for candidates running in local positions in their respective provinces.

This will be the first time that the Comelec would attempt to use the VRVMs. Since it is on pilot-testing stage yet, Senate president Vicente Sotto III welcomed the Comelec’s move to tap such high-tech gadgets to stop these perennial election fraud schemes. However, Sotto expressed concern there has not been enough information campaign done by the Comelec to educate the voters on this biometric innovation of our electoral process.

Surely, Sotto predicts a potential delay in the voting process. He calculated it might result to at least one to two minutes delay per voter, especially in the case of a voter who is not tech-savvy. It is an additional task for the three-man Board of Election Inspectors (BEIs) to assist the voter who may not know any better how the VRVM works.

Much more worrisome, if I may add, is how prepared and secured the polling precincts where the VRVMs are being pilot-tested. It could be risky for the BEIs if the “ghost” or the “flying” voter caught in the act might stir a scene, if not put up a fight.

Of course, the Philippine National Police (PNP) and the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) – which are both deputized peace and order keepers of the Comelec – would be present in the premises near the polling precincts. Hopefully, their presence would be enough deterrence against troublemakers.

The PNP and the AFP personnel might be spread too thinly across the country to attend to the 85,000 polling precincts. But there are force-multipliers from volunteer groups and election watchers to hopefully provide a non-partisan help to keep our E-day peaceful and orderly.

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