POSTSCRIPT / February 1, 2004 / Sunday

By FEDERICO D. PASCUAL JR.

Philippine STAR Columnist

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Better to lease than buy computers for elections

GMA GAINS ON POE: Actor Fernando Poe Jr. was still on top (36 percent) in the last Social Weather Stations popularity survey, but President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo had crept up to No. 2 position (27 percent) past Raul Roco (19 percent). Panfilo Lacson was fourth with 11 percent.

In another survey among members of the Makati Business Club, Ms Arroyo was the runaway choice as best equipped to solve the country’s problems. She garnered 47.6 percent, followed by Roco (29.3 percent) and Panfilo Lacson (4.9 percent). Poe got zero.

The survey findings of the SWS and such polling groups as Pulse Asia will keep changing as the campaign progresses toward the May 10 elections, but the MBC comparative standing of the presidential candidates can be expected to remain.

To summarize: Poe should be the president if popularity were the only criterion, but Arroyo should stay in office if competence were the sole basis for the vote. Roco and Lacson would continue to be marginalized.

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BUSINESS DECISION: The Supreme Court is being asked by the Commission on Elections and its contractor to make a business decision on a legal question.

This is our impression of the motions for reconsideration filed by the Comelec and the Mega Pacific consortium after the high court nullified their P1.3-billion contract for counting machines for the May elections.

But we think the court should just rule on the legal question on whether or not the contract between the Comelec and a non-bidder was valid and legal.

Whether or not the Comelec and Mega Pacific had forged a good deal is not the core question. It will become the main issue only when graft charges are filed based on complaints that the transaction is grossly disadvantageous to the government.

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BIGGER HEADACHE: Also irrelevant to the legal question is a political concern being introduced that invalidating the contract might derail the computerization of the elections as mandated by law.

The Supreme Court had lost some points in earlier controversial decisions marked by business and economic considerations. The tribunal can refurbish its image by sticking to the legal questions this time.

The Comelec would be inviting bigger trouble if it now wants to discuss, no holds barred, its business decision to buy the counting machines at the price charged by a group that did not even participate in the bidding.

Mega Pacific eSolutions Inc. was the bidder, but the Comelec — finding that the firm did not have the required three-year track record — awarded the contract to a hurriedly formed “Mega Pacific Consortium” that was not a bidder.

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WHY NOT LEASE?: In the first place, instead of buying the overpriced and over-rated computers, the Comelec should have just leased the equipment for a fraction of the buying price.

If the agency buys the computers and distributes them to far-flung hot dusty sites, it will have to ship them back to Manila afterwards for storage in warehouses until the next election three years later.

By that time, the expensive hardware would be decrepit and likely requiring upgrading and another software written for it. Buying the whole caboodle now does not make long-range business sense.

If the Comelec simply leased computers and peripherals, it would not have to worry about storage, accountability and obsolescence. When new elections come around after three years, the poll body can lease new, upgraded models at big savings.

Congress will not have to appropriate P1.3 billion in one throw. We will allocate additional money for updated needs only every time there is an election.

But this is a business matter that is not the main point before the Supreme Court. The point was and still is: Was the contract awarded to the Mega Pacific consortium valid and legal?

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SEMI-COMPUTERIZATION: The problem of ageing inventory is not as serious in the US, where voting machines are sometimes used almost 100 times a year for such exercises as national, state, county and city elections for school boards, councilors, mayors, fire and water district, ballot measures, et cetera.

In the Comelec plan here, the poll body will have to maintain a mega junkyard of near-obsolete equipment while waiting three years for the next election.

We have been talking of computerized elections, but note that the Mega Pacific computers semi-automate only the counting, not the voting. We will not use voting machines. We have to manually prepare our paper ballots.

The scanner hooked to the counter will be fed the machine-readable ballots by hand. But the bulk of the ballots nationwide will still be filled out manually and counted the old mano-mano way.

Yet we want to spend P1.3 billion for that poor semblance of “computerizing” the elections? It is just too much.

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MADE OF GOLD?: The computers we have been talking about are not that special, except for the brand and the awesome price tag. They are basically like the desktop models you buy in Greenhills or assemble in vocational classes.

The price we heard is P500,000 for each set! Maybe some parts of the contraption are made of solid gold?

We were told that such a basic setup running on Windows 2000 and an Intel Pentium 4 processor can be bought for P50,000. We would dare say that even a cheaper Celeron processor could run it.

We describe it “basic” because the computer hardware (everything you can touch and see in the setup) is not the heart of the matter.

The heart and soul of the entire operations is the ballot-counting software, or the program that will give life to the hardware via commands to the central processing unit. In tandem with the operating system (Windows), the software will run the scanner-computer-printer setup.

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CASH BEFORE DELIVERY: One curious thing was that from the time the computers were delivered until the Supreme Court struck down the deal, the final edition of the software/program had not been delivered to the Comelec.

In short, the Comelec paid around P849 million for something whose main component had not been delivered. Some government people had gone to jail for something like that CBD (Cash-Before-Delivery) arrangement.

Those machines being demonstrated and which consenting DOST officials had certified as 100-percent accurate were reportedly running on a demo program or a prototype software that was still to be written, tested, validated and delivered.

Somebody should take those computers out of the air-conditioned laboratory and test them over time in the humid, dusty precincts in the provinces with a hurriedly trained poll clerk operating it with live ballots.

No wonder the Supreme Court almost went berserk in anger when it nullified the contract. Read the strong language it used (Postscript, 15Jan2004).

Now the Comelec-Mega Pacific partners are going back to the tribunal for reconsideration. Aside from their old arguments, what are they bringing with them?

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ANTIQUE COLLECTION: Discussing computers on a personal plane, we think it is better for an average user to just buy or assemble his own computer tailor-made to his personal requirements, updating its parts only as the need arises.

A do-it-yourself computer is at least 20-percenrt cheaper than the models you see in the malls, because you do not tack on a markup, do not pay tax, and do not spend for overhead and advertising. Yet it works just as fine, if not better.

If you buy an expensive branded computer, you get stuck with it. Its sales and service agents prey on you during its one-year warranty. When the warranty expires, you look odd with your antique model and you don’t know how to dispose of it.

This is the same predicament the Comelec will find itself in if it insists on buying (instead of leasing) those scanner-computer-printer setups being passed off as the epitome of computerized elections.

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(First published in the Philippine STAR of February 1, 2004)

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