POSTSCRIPT / December 28, 2006 / Thursday


Philippine STAR Columnist

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Comelec should lease, not buy, poll computers

COMPUTERIZE?: They are still quarreling over that eternal plan of “computerizing” elections. Some senators, election officials and a motley group are locked in endless debate over the wisdom and feasibility of “automating” the process.

One group says we should rush the proposed automation — estimated to cost at least a billion pesos for the first stage — while another says that it is too late for the May 2007 elections.

Pero teka muna, will there be elections next year? With Malacanang setting aside P4 billion just to import rice next year, you can bet there will be elections as scheduled.

I write “computerizing” and “automating” in quotation marks, because I do not know exactly what their proponents and the kibitzers have in mind.

I don’t know if one term refers to computerizing the collection of commissions from the purchase of equipment and supplies, or if the other term refers to automating the cheating in the casting, counting and canvassing of the votes.

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FAST & FRAUD-FREE: But as this is still the Yule season, let us grant good faith and assume that they mean using computers and such electronic gear in minimizing human intervention, usually of the criminal kind, in elections.

The honorable objective, we shall grant, is to speed up the electoral process and reduce to near-zero the chronic cheating at the polls.

With that assumption, we can continue talking and dreaming of finally automating Philippine elections.

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WHY NOT LEASE?: Without meaning to throw cold water on the merchants of computerization, let me say right off that the Commission on Elections should NOT BUY computerized or automated equipment for conducting elections.

Instead, the Comelec should be mandated by law to just lease or rent equipment.

This is not because of the sad experience we have had with the Comelec buying P1.2-billion worth of automated counting machines in a transaction that was found to be legally flawed and therefore void from the beginning.

My suggestion of leasing instead of buying equipment stems mainly from practical considerations.

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OBSOLESCENCE: First point is that computers and such electronic machines are rendered obsolete in comparatively short time. That is intentional.

We hold elections every three years. The computers or voting/counting machines for 2007 (if we do buy and use them) would be too old by the time the next elections come around three years later.

During the three-year interval, the machines would just lie idle in warehouses that require a certain ambient temperature and humidity, plus a dust-free atmosphere, that make storage alone very costly.

By the time they are taken out, dusted off, retested, and shipped to various points in the archipelago for the next elections, they may not be in top condition to ensure error-free operation in inhospitable field conditions.

On the other hand, leasing ensures that the equipment in use is always updated, the latest models, and covered by new warranties.

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NEWEST MODEL: So why buy massive quantities of equipment lock, stock and barrel and get stuck with them?

It is better to keep the suppliers upgrading their hardware and software in-between elections — and for them to offer the new models for lease when the next election is scheduled.

That way, the Comelec would always be using the upgraded or completely redesigned versions of election equipment. Electronic cheaters would be panting for breath trying to catch up.

There would be constructive competition among suppliers offering for lease their newest equipment. Foreign suppliers of election machines would find the Philippines more interesting.

Computers and their peripherals are notorious for their fast rate of obsolescence. Even for home use, this is one point to consider when buying computers and related equipment.

By leasing, the government will not have the problem of warehousing idle equipment that is near-obsolete by the time it is unpacked for reuse.

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COST FACTORS: All cost factors considered, I would not be surprised if leasing comes out cheaper in the long run than outright purchase of computerized election hardware and software.

Even from the point of view of the crooks or “commissioners” in government, leasing may prove to be more lucrative since suppliers would continue to deal as they anticipate the next round of transaction.

If a supplier sells the Comelec one entire set of voting machines one time, that’s it for many years. The machines are supposed to be good for more than one election.

After a purchase, crooks could make more money only if they made repeat or additional orders for more of the same machines for expanded election coverage or to replace broken units. This is aside from commissions from additional supplies.

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DOWNSIDE: One downside of leasing is the possible need for retraining election personnel and educating voters every time we change equipment.

But the specifications could be so laid out that minimal transition training would be needed for the new models. The law, or the Comelec terms of reference, could preclude a total and abrupt change of technology when leasing new equipment.

As for education expenses, for simplicity, the method and the cost of training could be built into the leasing contract.

Worse scenario: Failing to find upgraded equipment for the next round of elections, the Comelec could opt to lease the same machines used in the previous election, with new warranties. This would reduce the training and education requirement.

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SELL TO ALIENS?: The matter of leasing election equipment is related, although not totally similar, to the question of whether we should amend the Constitution to allow foreigners to buy and own land in the Philippines.

For a country as vast as the United States, it is all right to sell lots or real estate to aliens. But not for a small country like ours bursting with a population of more than 85 million, many of whom cannot afford to own their home sites or dwellings.

Try selling land to foreigners and a big chunk of choice areas in the Philippines will be gobbled up in no time at all – and many Filipinos will continue to be squatters in their own country.

If foreign investors need space for factories, office buildings and whatever other purposes related to their business, they can be allowed to lease — not buy – big areas.

Anyway, land can be productive whether it is owned or leased by whoever is using it properly. (This will be discussed in later Postscripts.)

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(First published in the Philippine STAR of December 28, 2006)

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