With something akin to undue haste, the Commission on Elections (Comelec) awarded the P18-billion automation contract to Miru Systems. This is the largest election automation contract ever awarded anywhere.

Now the poll body’s next task is to seek amendments to the Election Automation Law of 2007. Section 12 of that law requires that any technology procured must have previously been used in actual elections.

The commissioners themselves describe the counting machine presented by Miru to be a “prototype.” The machine was “customized and has not yet been produced.”

If it has not been produced, then it has not been used in any preceding election. It is experimental and unproven. It obviously violates the letter and the spirit of the automation law.

“So sue me,” says the Comelec chairman haughtily. Perhaps someone will. If that happens, preparations for next year’s elections could be put in jeopardy. The timetable is tight as it is.

In another setting, the Comelec may be celebrated for speedily awarding the contract. The poll body, without any hearing or consultations, barred traditional supplier Smartmatic from participating in the bidding on Nov. 13, 2023. Just over three months later, with what some critics may describe as lacking due diligence, the humongous contract was awarded to Miru Feb. 22, 2024.

In a way, this was an easy bid to award. Because the poll body arbitrarily banned Smartmatic, only Miru remained in the bidding process. It was a no-contest from the start.

Had there been competing bids, the Comelec might have had a more rigorous selection process. The poll body may have raised their specifications and pressed for a better price.

When there is only one bidder, the dynamics of the bidding process changes dramatically in favor of the seller. In a sense, the poll body was hostage to its only bidder. It could not be more demanding.

The Comelec chairman declared that a contract must be signed before March at the peril of falling behind the schedule of preparations for the 2025 elections. He was being a bit dramatic. History argues he actually had more leisure in conducting the bidding.

For the 2016 elections, a contract for the provision of vote-counting machines was signed in late-September 2015 – a mere seven months from election day. The very first contract for poll automation was signed just 10 months before elections were due.

But in those previous instances, Comelec was not dealing with a company offering a prototype. The previous contracts were awarded for machines that had, in a manner of speaking, a combat record. They were tried and tested elsewhere.

This time, Comelec has signed a contract for untested technology. The greater leeway benefits the winning bidder, not necessarily the taxpayer. That winning bidder now has over a year to perfect its prototype, manufacture about 110,000 counting machines and have them deployed, along with peripherals, way before May next year. A certain amount of time must also be reserved to train poll personnel in the use of a machine that is still, at this point, experimental.

Over the next 14 months, anything can happen. The technology might require further improvement. The manufacture of the machines might experience some hitches. And then, by the time elections roll around, the new machines might fail as Miru machines failed last December in elections in Iraq and Congo.

The suspense is on us.

Should hitches happen, the blame will lie with the poll body. It was the Comelec that arbitrarily excluded the former supplier from the bidding process, setting the stage for a non-competitive bidding exercise. Other potential bidders might have stayed away on the perception that the poll body already had a designated winner.

Quite noticeably, the Comelec has not been forthcoming about the technical specifications of the technology we have all bound ourselves to at this point. In the past, the proposed counting machines were dry-tested before the media and even taken on road tours. None of that happened this time.

At any rate, as a taxpayer and voter, I hope the newly contracted technology will indeed be superior and that they will function flawlessly in the hot month of May next year. The outcomes of our elections are disheartening enough. We do not need the aggravation of a failed automation system – or a Frankenstein of a counting machine no one outside the Comelec has actually seen.

There is, unfortunately, no digital technology that will ensure our electorate will choose the best and the brightest to occupy the abundance of elective positions on offer.

In the next electoral cycle, whoever the technology supplier, substandard choices will continue proliferating. We will continue electing clowns to Congress. The disease is not in the counting machines used. It is in the deformed political culture we have nurtured.

We may be disappointed with this electoral culture but short of reinventing the constitutional order, the operating system that produces the governing class, we will continue the present drift towards mediocrity in high office and an electoral process shaped by money politics.

Nor will a fully functioning counting system protect our electoral democracy from fraud.

This early, the Comelec chairman no less has warned against scammers offering to ensure electoral victory – at a staggering price. Anyone who forks over millions in cash to these scammers must be a total idiot. They are paying for assurance of victory by way of counting machines no one has seen.

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