This column is going to support a friend who’s taken on a Herculean task, stepped in where Angels fear to tread as they say. Andy Bautista has agreed to lead COMELEC through the next elections. I think he’s mad, but I fully support him in his madness. He’ll be attacked by all kinds of shady characters as he assumes what is, quite simply, a mess. A mess we’d not be in if we’d had a COMELEC Chairman that had done his job, but we didn’t, now emergency measures must be undertaken.
Here we are but 10 months from voting and COMELEC doesn’t have a system in place, incredible, frightening. And to get a system in place they’re almost certainly going to have to cut some corners. Corners some misbenighted lawyers will undoubtedly challenge, already have. Instead I’d like to appeal to them, think of your country, we need this election to proceed successfully. I want, no I demand that the Automated Election System Watch tell us what they will do to provide clean elections on May 17 if their petition to the Supreme Court succeeds. Otherwise withdraw their blockage so we can have elections that work. The group of Bishops and others should withdraw their petition too. What, anyway, are Bishops doing interfering in what a secular government does. It’s a group that is anti-Aquino and pro-Arroyo making its appeal highly questionable, politically oriented. The Supreme Court should just throw it out.
If full automation is to be used then what is important is that the system be decided upon urgently. COMELEC needs approximately 100,000 machines to maintain an 800-1000 voters to machine ratio. On July 9 the Special Bids and Awards Committee agreed to lease 23,000 Optical Mark Readers from Smartmatic. Like it or not this must not be challenged. Next COMELEC must choose whether to rehabilitate 82,000 Smartmatic machines that are almost 6 years old or buy 71,000 (70,977 to be exact) new ones. The cost differential is some P5 billion. So some will argue you must choose the cheapest. But, no, you mustn’t. Quite frankly cost is inconsequential, an accurate, open system that works is what must be chosen. You don’t risk the outcome of who’ll run the country over a few billion pesos. The cost of it all going wrong is far, far higher.
And if there’s only one company that offers machines then you have no choice but to accept that. Fair, open bidding will just have to be dispensed with. Now we have a Chairman we can trust. I believe we can be assured it will be an honest deal. I don’t like Smartmatic anymore than anyone else but if that’s the only option so be it. What we have to be assured of is that 1) The PCOS machines actually work; 2) the cost is reasonable, not the cheapest possible; and 3) the system this time is transparent, credible and accurate, as the law mandates. All of those were under suspicion in 2010.
Tests must be done, real tests of the system in toto, with all the necessary safeguards in place and working.
The test and examination of the system should be done by an independent group of experts. I’d include one foreigner with experience of automatic elections elsewhere. They should also confirm the fairness of the price.
There’s an alternative system on offer where a test was recently done led by IT expert and former COMELEC commissioner (thrown out because he was too good) Gus Lagman of a hybrid system. Where voting and canvassing at the precinct level would be done in the old fashioned way, manually. But transmission, collating and canvassing at the municipal and regional levels would be done electronically. The advantages are that a manual count can be checked, cross-checked at the poll center before transmission and that the subsequent, collation and counting, etc. can be done with ordinary computers (that can be donated to schools afterwards). No special, one-use machines needed.
A test of the system was done two weeks ago in Bacoor. It wasn’t too successful, but the reasons are correctible. However COMELEC says time has run out to switch to a completely new system, so COMELEC and Congress decided not to use it. Gus disagrees and he justifies well that the hybrid system can be set up in the limited time; Also COMELEC estimate of the cost was completely wrong so not a factor for rejection. It’s a system I’d much prefer, I really don’t trust Smartmatic. I do trust Gus. Whatever the choice there’s little time to make it.
The Comelec Board needs to decide. Whatever is decided time is critically short, a final decision must be made soon enough to provide leeway to distribute the units, install and test. And then test the system throughout. It’s very, very tight. Nitpicking delay can’t be tolerated.
There are two other things that must be done. Some 4.3 million people have not had their biometric data taken, so they can’t vote. The government, not just COMELEC but DSWD and DepEd need to help. Elderly people particularly need to be found and helped to register. Many more centers to register are needed, not just shopping malls but also in more remote areas. Voters, young and old, need to register otherwise they won’t be allowed to vote. Media must be brought in to help disseminate the need.
The second thing needed is how to vote intelligently, and refuse to be enticed or enforced into a vote some unscrupulous pol wants. Voters need to look at the qualifications, experience and expertise not the “good looks.” A widespread education program is needed to get this message across, something I’m glad to say business has offered to support.
What can’t happen is to have no election. So I’ll repeat it, stop running to court and let Comelec under its new chairman do its job.