Business Mirror - Comelec’s not-so-smart choice

By Business Mirror

In a speech before the Filipino community in Tokyo last week, President Duterte urged the Commission on Elections to get rid of Smartmatic and get a fraud-free contractor for the next elections in 2022.

“If you use that in the next election three years from now I don’t know what will happen. Something has got to give. Improve on the systems. Stop using Smartmatic,” Duterte said.

Several lawmakers and poll watchdogs immediately backed his call, including the National Citizens’ Movement for Free Elections (Namfrel), Kontra Daya and Sen. Aquilino Pimentel III, head of the congressional oversight committee on the automated election system (AES), which is scheduled to conduct a hearing today, June 4, concerning the technical glitches encountered last May 13.

The Venezuela-based Smartmatic has been our country’s poll technology provider since the Philippines first implemented a nationwide automation of the elections in 2010, but not without much controversy.

The number of conscientious public objections that have been made against it in the past has been truly worrying for anyone interested in the sanctity and credibility of elections.

Several election watchdogs have petitioned the Comelec to blacklist Smartmatic from further participating in Comelec bids because of the many problems of its machines, to no avail.

President Duterte is right. Why choose Smartmatic, despite all the defects and flaws of its machines?

For instance, the Comelec had to acquire additional machines or repair broken units in the 2016 elections after renting Smartmatic’s machines for P7.9 billion in 2010 and then buying them for another billion P2 billion in 2013.

How good are these machines if billions in taxpayers’ money were only good for one or two elections, not even six years apart? The government should not have kept paying for a flawed technology—and yet it did.

Despite all the inefficiencies and blunders of the highly controversial precinct count optical scan (PCOS) machines of Smartmatic that were used by the Comelec in the 2010 and 2013 elections, Smartmatic was again favored by the poll body for the 2016 and 2019 elections.

How much has Smartmatic’s automation project cost the Comelec overall? It was at P20.3 billion in the first six years alone, when the government first rented its PCOS machines in 2010, then bought them for the 2013 elections, then paid them again to check their machines for snafus and glitches, for a cost of P300 million. Mind you, the P300 million was just an initial payment, just to check the machines, not even repair them. The entire contract for the diagnostics, repair and refurbishing of their 82,000 PCOS machines was P1.2 billion.

In March last year, the Comelec decided to buy for another P2.1 billion the 97,000 vote-counting machines (VCMs) it had leased from Smartmatic for P8 billion for the 2016 elections (still more were added to the 82,000) for use in the 2019 midterm polls.

Now, do not be confused by the acronyms—PCOS, OMR (optical mark reader), VCMs—they are all the same machines; the fact that the Comelec keeps calling Smartmatic’s machines by different names speaks volumes about their questionable reputation.

Another fact: The Comelec is Smartmatic’s biggest customer.

Only in the Philippines it seems does the government reward inefficiency with more and bigger public contracts.

Prior to the May polls, Comelec Spokesman James Jimenez told reporters in a press conference that Smartmatic’s role in the 2019 elections had already been limited to providing technical support.

“The machines are made by Smartmatic, yes. But it’s just hardware,” he said.

But does Smartmatic even own the system and technology it is selling us? It was sued in the United States for its alleged usurpation of the rights over the technology that another company rightfully owns.

Smartmatic does not make the vote counting machines. Jarltech in Taiwan makes them, subcontracted only by Smartmatic.

The software or source code used to operate the machines is owned by Dominion Voting Systems of Canada, which sued Smartmatic for usurpation.

So essentially Smartmatic is only a middleman, making a killing by selling us other people’s wares.

Comelec’s bidding specifications clearly prohibits bidders from subcontracting major components of a bidder’s offered system, so why was Smartmatic allowed to be the government’s AES service provider anyway?

Why did the government keep paying Smartmatic every three years or so to check their machines, refurbish them and replace them? Were these machines not even covered by any kind of warranty, like most appliances people buy from a store?

We hope today’s congressional hearing could shed light on these questions and issues, so glitches would no longer be repeated, to ensure that future elections would be truly fair and honest.

But, indeed, the Comelec should heed the President’s advice and end all its deals with Smartmatic.