POSTSCRIPT / October 24, 2006 / Tuesday

By FEDERICO D. PASCUAL JR.

Philippine STAR Columnist

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There's still time to get new ACMs for '07 polls

BAD FOR GMA: Why is the election lawyer of President Gloria Arroyo arguing, like it is a life and death issue, for using the idle 1,991 automated counting machines for the 2007 elections? The implications are bad for the President.

Unless lawyer Romy Macalintal has been retained also by the Mega Pacific eSolutions Inc. that sold the hot ACMs to the Commission on Elections, he has no business getting entangled in that delicate side issue.

The implication in the simplistic minds of many people is that President Arroyo wants to salvage the P1.3-billion ACM deal and thereby save Comelec officials led by Chairman Benjamin Abalos because they helped her win the 2004 presidential election.

That leap in plain folk logic may not be fair, but that is the way the Filipino mind long exposed to government shenanigans works.

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DON’T TOUCH ‘EM: Macalintal said among other things that there was no more time to buy another set of equipment with which to computerize the coming elections.

He said that looking for (budgeting) the money, processing bids for the computerized equipment, training users and deploying the machines nationwide require so much time — a precious element that the Comelec, he said, does not have.

But all is not lost, the President’s lawyer was quick to add. There is an easy way to computerize the 2007 elections, according to him, and that is to take out the 1,991 mothballed ACMs and use them as it was originally planned in 2004.

I say, we do that and we kiss goodbye our ever being able to punish the guilty parties that had forced upon us an illegal deal whose magnitude puts to shame earlier anomalies in the procurement of Comelec supplies.

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MEGA SET TO BID: There is no more time? Not to the businessmen who know all about supplying Comelec needs as well as the work and cash flows attendant to its constitutionally mandated activities.

I was talking on the phone yesterday with Enrique Tansipek, a director of the Mega Pacific eSolutions Inc., and he told me their group was preparing to join the bidding, if any, for computerized poll equipment.

In so many words, he explained that they want to bounce back and prove that Mega Pacific is a legitimate consortium ready and willing to supply election computers that meet strict technical specifications.

He added that the returns that they projected in the 2004 transaction were not realized. They are hoping to recover financially from the next one, if bidding for new ACMs or related equipment will be opened for use in 2007.

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COMES IN STAGES: But Macalintal said there is no more time, I told him. Tansipek said the time requirements will depend on what the final version of the poll computerization bill in Congress will require the Comelec to do.

If Congress wants to carry out a total computerization of the elections from voting to counting to transmission, it might be an order too tall for the Comelec suffering from a credibility problem, as well as a lack of time, funds and expertise.

The entire electoral process comes in phases. It starts from the preparing of the physical and personnel requirements, then moves on to conducting an information and education program, to registration of voters and candidates, casting of votes, counting the ballots, canvassing and consolidation, and final reporting.

It is obvious that fully computerizing that long complicated process in six short months would be a Herculean job too daunting for our Comelec and too expensive for this poor nation to finance all at once.

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TOUCH SCREEN: But if the computerization that Congress wants involves, as in 2004, only the counting and reporting of the votes, the work is much more simplified, less costly and less time-consuming.

If that is what Congress wants, there is time for it, without having to take out the ACMs that Macalintal is seeking to drag into the picture and — I sense – in the process save Abalos et al., and the President.

Imagine computerizing the entire electoral process. How do we produce the computers that allow voters to just touch a screen to submit their choices, automatically tally the votes, store and protect the results, then report out the data electronically?

Even in countries with more sophisticated poll gadgets, these touch-screen machines have not been able to guarantee fraud-proofing. Do we plunge into their use at this stage on short notice and on a tight budget?

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EMPOWERMENT: We Filipinos have gotten used to writing out our choices on Election Day. Even if sometimes our votes are actually not counted, the process bonds us voters to the system and to elective officials.

We do not want to rob the voter of that simple joy of empowerment, do we? (This problem is similar to that kink arising from the adoption of a parliamentary system that deprives the Filipino the power to elect his President by his direct vote.)

So maybe at this stage, we can dispense with electronic voting and devote our meager resources to perfecting the counting and transmitting stages of the process — just like in the plan we had in 2004 involving the use of ACMs.

If we need only ACMs this time, with our sad (but valuable) mega-experience in 2004, we can be sure we will know how to do it right this time. And we can do it faster, in which case time will not be much of a problem.

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PILOT LOCATIONS: Sen. Richard Gordon and his colleagues have said that poll computerization in 2007 will not be nationwide, but only in selected pilot areas. That is a sane start.

It makes sense. As pointed out above, it would be reckless to plunge into full-blown computerization of all stages on 7,000-plus islands on a short budget and a shrinking timeframe.

The scale and complexity of the exercise is not in its being nationwide, but in its being divided into various stages that come mostly in linear sequence (one after the other), with each stage confronted by unique problems absent in the others.

Whether we have electronic counting machines in 100 or 100,000 locations, the technical requirement for reporting the results will be virtually the same since all the identical machines will be operating in similar fashion and reporting to the same address(es).

The main problem will only be traffic, as it is with our mobile phone systems that start out efficiently but later slow down when clogged by volume surges.

Once the infrastructure for computerized vote-counting is laid out and working fine for that one stage, the rest should be easy to manage.

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ON CLOUD 9: If you see public relations guru Charlie Agatep smiling and floating like he were on Cloud 9, it may be because his firm has been chosen finalist and potential Gold Awardee in the Asia Pacific PR Awards 2006.

Euro RSCG Agatep PR (that is the international alias of his firm) is gunning for the gold in the PR Professional of the Year category. His was one of 330 firms brave enough to submit their work for scrutiny of a 16-man judging panel that includes some of the biggest names in PR communication in the Asia Pacific region.

Winners will be announced at a gala presentation on Nov. 16 at the Grand Hyatt Hong Kong.

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(First published in the Philippine STAR of October 24, 2006)

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