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Comelec seeks alternatives

WITH only a year, two weeks and three days to go before the 2016 polls, the Commission on Elections (Comelec) is considering using only the 23,000 optical mark reader (OMR) machines that are the subject of a public bidding, under a centralized setup, a spokesman for the agency said Wednesday.

Comelec spokesman James Jimenez said this “central count optical system” would bypass the need for the old 81,000 precinct count optical scan (PCOS) machines, after the Supreme Court nullified a negotiated contract with Smartmatic-TIM to have them refurbished and repaired.

“What we plan now is to use the machines that are still in the bidding process. We are considering using the 23,000 OMR units for a central count optical system,” Jimenez said.

The CCOS would entail transporting ballots from a group of precincts to a designated voting center where they would be scanned and tabulated.

He said that even before the Supreme Court stopped the refurbishing contract, the Comelec was already considering alternatives to using the PCOS machines.

“What we will do is just to activate those contingency plans that we have laid out before,” he said.

Another alternative was to bid out the contract to repair the 81,000 PCOS machines, but with time running out, this was unlikely, he said.

“There’s a very slim possibility that we could actually bid out the refurbishment,” he said.

“If we are to start it now, there will be time for that. After all, the original refurbishment contract was actually slated to run only five months,” he said.

He said the Comelec has not yet decided on which plan to implement for the 2016 elections.

Retired Comelec commissioner Gregorio Larrazabal slammed the idea of a centralized count, saying this system posed many problems when it was used in Mindanao.

“When you transport the ballots from the precinct to the counting center, there will be possible danger to the custody [of the ballots],” Larrazabal said.

The Parish Pastoral Council for Responsible Voting (PPCRV) vice president for internal affairs Johnny Cardenas agreed.

He said the longer the ballots remain uncounted, the greater the likelihood that something would happen to them.

A former poll employee and co-convenor of the Citizens for Clean and Credible Elections, Melchor Magdamo, said violence in election hot spots could escalate under such a system.

“I don’t believe in CCOS in election hotspots. Maybe in peaceful places, but in places with a reputation of violence, imagine the transportation of the ballots from the precinct to the counting center -- that’s where many untoward incidents happen,” he said.

Larrazabal said the Comelec was able to conduct fully automated elections in 2010 and 2013 and there was no reason it should move backward in 2016.

“How do you justify an older method of counting?” he said.

Election lawyer Romulo Macalintal reiterated his concerns that the Supreme Court decision would create a no-election scenario in 2016.

He said it was impractical for the Comelec to replace the 81,000 PCOS machines because it did not have enough funds.

He also discounted suggestions to buy new machines to replace the PCOS because the Comelec does not have enough funds.

“And even granting for the sake of argument that we have the money to buy new machines, it would need almost a year to conduct the bidding, to test these new machines; to orient those people who would be operating them; and to likewise educate the electorate on the proper use or operation of these new machines,” Macalintal said.

But in a separate interview, Larrazabal said the people will not allow for a no-election scenario.

He also urged President Benigno Aquino III to immediately appoint a new poll chairman and two commissioners so that the agency could move forward and revaluate its timeline.

“What’s needs to be done now is to re-examine and re-evaluate the preparations, then make adjustments in order to adequately prepare and ensure the conduct of an election next year,” he said.

“The first thing that needs to be done is to fill all the vacancies,” he said.

Jimenez also dismissed the possibility of having no elections in 2016.

“That would be impossible. We will not allow it,” he said.

The Palace on Wednesday said the elections would push through despite the Supreme Court ruling against the Comelec contract.

“As you know, they [the Comelec] are constitutionally mandated by our Charter to ensure that elections, as mentioned in the Constitution, push through. And so we would defer to them,” said presidential spokeman Edwin Lacierda.

He, too, ruled out the possibility of postponing the 2016 elections.

“The election should push through. It’s constitutionally mandated and everybody should comply with the Constitution. So, we are very certain that the Comelec is very aware of its mandated role of making sure that elections happen in 2016,” he said.

Senator Francis Escudero also dismissed fears that there would be no elections in 2016.

“That is impossible since the conduct of an election every three years is the only mandate of the Comelec,” he said in a public forum.

“And precisely because elections happen only every three years, there is no reason for the Comelec not to do it effectively,” he added

The senator also said it would be illegal to go back to a manual count because the law provides that the election must be automated.

He said the best option for the Comelec is to bid out the contract to refurbish the 81,000 PCOS machines as there is still time.

In the House, the leader of the independent minority bloc, Leyte Rep. Ferdinand Martin Romualdez, said Filipinos would not allow a no-election scenario.

“Definitely, the 2016 elections should push through as scheduled,” he said.

Romualdez said Congress should be ready for any eventuality, including amending the law to allow a manual count.

“I support manual counting and automatic transmittal of election results. Some will say it is premature at this stage, but there is nothing wrong to consider all options possible to ensure that next year’s elections will push through as scheduled. At the same time, the Comelec should continue on its mandate to take corrective measures on the nullified contract,” he added.

House Speaker Feliciano Belmonte, Jr. said the Comelec should work double time to ensure that elections are held as scheduled.

“They just have to speed up the rebidding,” Belmonte said.

Isabela Rep. Rodolfo Albano III, a member of the House minority bloc, said the Comelec must consider a hybrid election system.

“Time is of the essence, and prudence dictates that the Comelec consider alternative plans like the proposed semi-automated or hybrid elections system like the Transparent and Credible Election System or TCREST in which voting and canvassing of votes is conducted manually but the election results are transmitted electronically by computers through the Internet and other telecommunications systems,” Albano said.

Bayan Muna party-list Rep. Neri Colmenares, on the other hand, urged the Comelec to discard the use of Smarmatic PCOS automated system as “it violated the democratic tenet of secret voting and public counting and yields sovereign control of the electoral process to a foreign entity.”

Colmenares also said that the Comelec and Smartmatic must be held accountable for the series of irregular and graft-ridden contracts, “for deliberately and illegally discarding vital safeguards including source code reviews and for the massive malfunctioning of expensive PCOS and electronic cheating.” – With Sandy Araneta, Macon Ramos-Araneta and Maricel V. Cruz

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