The Manila Times – Preparations for the 2019 and subsequent elections

By Lito Averia | The Manila Times 

NINETEEN months. Countdown to May 2019 elections.

ONE of the first decisions that the Commission on Elections (Comelec) has to make is the exercise of the option to purchase the VCMs, the erstwhile PCOS, used in the 2016 elections.

This is not the first time that the Comelec finds itself in a similar situation. Despite the recommendation of the Comelec Advisory Council for the 2010 elections not to re-use the PCOS machines, Comelec, under the stewardship of then Chairman Sixto Brillantes, exercised the option and bought the PCOS machines which were re-used in the 2013 elections. Chairman Brillantes, justifying the purchase, said that the PCOS machines could be used until the 2019 elections. With ownership of the PCOS came additional expenses, the biggest of which was warehousing. Following the discovery of the digital lines after the 2013 elections, it became obvious that the PCOS machines had to be repaired or refurbished or possibly upgraded. Smartmatic-TIM had offered to perform the repair of the PCOS machines under an Extended Warranty Contract, which then Chairman Brillantes signed a couple of days before his retirement. The contract was challenged in the Supreme Court which ruled that services for repair and refurbishment had to be procured through competitive bidding. It declared: “The services of repair and refurbishment cannot be procured from Smartmatic-TIM through an ‘extended warranty’ mode, unless this Court assents to a blatant circumvention of the procurement law.”

Time was running out as the Comelec was preparing for the 2016 elections. With the repair and refurbishment option ditched, the Comelec decided to lease a new set of PCOS machines, renamed VCM, for use in the 2016 elections. The lease came with an offer for an option to purchase.

Will the Comelec purchase the VCMs and spend close to P2 billion to exercise the option? A decision to purchase means that the Comelec will have to also spend for storage and upkeep of the machines. The Comelec will also have to make a determination how long it can keep the machines and whether the same can be used for a number of subsequent electoral exercises. Instead of purchasing the VCMs, why not consider leasing the VCMs based on its current value? Re-leasing the VCMs will allow the Comelec to avoid additional cost of storage and upkeep of the machines.

A meeting of the House of Representatives committee on suffrage and electoral reforms was held last October 10, 2017, for the purpose of briefing the committee, stakeholders, and election monitoring bodies on the preparations for the 2019 elections. Re-use of the same technology, the repair and refurbishment of the PCOS machines, and the option to purchase the VCM were discussed. Following the questions raised by lawmakers and discussions, it became apparent that the VCM was better than the PCOS because the VCM is a later version of the same technology. Re-use of the same technology was the underlying theme of the questions. The costs considered, it was argued that purchasing the VCMs was cheaper than having the PCOS repaired.

Also discussed in the meeting was the increase in the number of clustered precincts. The factors considered for this are the increase in the number of registered voters and the smaller number of registered voters per clustered precinct. To cover for the increase in voting machines required use of other voting and vote-counting technologies—the direct recording electronic technology or other technologies developed by local developers or a hybrid system as espoused in House Bill 313—has been recommended. The Comelec will have to seriously consider the use of other technologies for the 2019 polls and pave the way for their greater use in subsequent elections. After all, Section 1 of the Automated Election Law, or Republic Act 8436 as amended by Republic Act 9369, declares that “The State recognizes the mandate and authority of the commission to prescribe adoption and use of the most suitable technology of demonstrated capability taking into account the situation prevailing in the area and funds available for the purpose.”

For the use of automated election systems developed by local developers, the Comelec has to find ways to surmount the requirement that the technology must have been successfully used in a prior electoral exercise. RA 8436 as amended does not define the type of electoral exercise referred to. It could be the election of the members of the board during corporate stockholders meeting. It could be the election of student council members.

Insofar as the canvassing and consolidation system (CCS) is concerned, the Comelec, through its programmers assisted by developers from the Advanced Science and Technology Institute, had developed its own CCS in 2011 at a cost much lower than the cost of the license to use the CCS supplied by Smartmatic. The Comelec CCS was developed considering the rules of canvassing and consolidation of votes through the various levels as required by law. The Comelec should seriously consider using its own developed CCS for the 2019 and subsequent elections.

The Comelec should also consider engaging project management specialists and system managers and administrators in the local industry.

In crafting its recommendations, the Comelec Advisory Council for the 2019 elections envisions and “encourages more diversity, variety for election service providers, local and international, and less dependency, if not total freedom, from only one source or provider.”

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