POSTSCRIPT / December 9, 2014 / Tuesday

By FEDERICO D. PASCUAL JR.

Opinion Columnist

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Smartmatic has edge to supply election gear

LIKELY WINNER: At the rate the stormy Commission on Elections drags itself before its final landfall, the poll body is likely to exit in 2016 with its suki supplier Smartmatic still lording it over the landscape with its PCOS machines.

This early, we can almost see the reason for a fallback on the Precinct Count Optical Scan system of Smartmatic: There will be no more time (and money) to purchase and install another automated election system.

The procurement timeline is becoming so tight that the required bidding for multibillion-peso election equipment might have to be dispensed with — and the purchase simply negotiated with Smartmatic.

This, despite urgent petitions for the Supreme Court to disqualify Smartmatic, against whom had been lodged complaints that the Venezuelan company is a mere reseller of hardware made by a China manufacturer, did not own the source code, and its PCOS failed miserably in 2013.

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WHY SMARTMATIC: Comelec Chairman Sixto Brillantes Jr. lamented in the Senate budget hearing that with only a P16.9-billion budget approved by the Department of Budget and Management for 2015, the poll body cannot buy the 120,000 PCOS machines needed in 2016.

The Comelec has some 80,000 PCOS machines bought from Smartmatic in 2012 and used only once in the 2013 elections. Another 40,000 more may be needed for 2016.

To simplify and to save money, the Comelec has been advised by Malacañang to use (repairing some of them) the PCOS machines of previous elections and buy additional units estimated to cost more than P18 billion.

If Brillantes takes that straight path, and he is likely to, Smartmatic will have the edge since (1) any alternative system must be compatible with its PCOS system, and (2) the old PCOS machines can be repaired or upgraded only by Smartmatic.

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STUCK: If Smartmatic International Corp. is to be believed, the Comelec is stuck with its services and hardware.

Cesar Flores, Smartmatic-Asia president, said only their firm has the capability and exclusive rights over the parts needed to repair or refurbish old PCOS machines.

He explained: “If you open this to other bidders, they will try to get the parts, which they cannot because we have exclusivity on those parts.

“If you change the printer, for example, you have to change the source code of the PCOS machine. They will have to provide new software, which (still) has to be re-certified, which will take six months.”

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NEGOTIATED DEAL: Not all Comelec officials, however, share that view. Commissioner Lucenito Tagle, for one, said other companies can repair and upgrade PCOS equipment.

He said: “We believe others can do it, only we are still discussing whether we have to extend the warranty or resort to bidding since a lot of people say that we have to undergo bidding. But we are weighing the (options)… We may be too delayed if we hold biddings. That’s one factor.”

The Comelec’s own legal department is wary of the idea of an extended agreement or a negotiated deal.

Director Esmeralda Ladra of the legal department said in an opinion: “It behooves us to ensure that this Extension of Warranty for the repair and maintenance of PCOS machines, which is a clear example of direct contracting or single source procurement, be made to undergo the tests of validity under RA 9184.”

The government procurement act mandates that all procurement be done through competitive bidding. The same law allows alternative methods of procurement “only in the highly exceptional cases.”

That is just the problem. Some individuals might collude to drag the process to squander time. Then for lack of time to conduct biddings, they justify a negotiated contract.

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BACK TO MANUAL: So rife with confusion, corruption and manipulation has the automated electoral process become that not a few sectors are proposing to marry the computerized system with the old manual voting.

The proposal to return to manual voting came to mind when we heard reports that some villagers in Iloilo fleeing from the wrath of typhoon Ruby (Hagupit) have sought refuge in caves.

Almost 400 families or about 2,000 persons from three barangays have taken refuge in caves on Gigantes Island, in Carles town in Iloilo, as officials pressed the pre-emptive evacuation of threatened barangays.

Carles was among the towns hardest hit by last year’s Supertyphoon Yolanda (Haiyan). Many local folk moved into the caves on Gigantes which is known for its white beaches, clear waters and rock formations.

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DIRECT COUNT: The suggestion for a mixed Voting-Counting-Transmission system involves the manual filling out and public counting of the ballots in the precincts where they were cast. Only the transmission of the official results would be computerized.

It is argued that the total computerization of the election has deprived voters the sense of participation or involvement. Voters do not even have an idea of what happened to their votes, as they are forced to just repose their full faith in the electronic machines.

When the manipulators and cheaters take over the automated system, there is no paper trail and no physical proof of fraud. A growing number of countries have junked computerized voting.

In the last elections, the Comelec itself that was supposed to guard the vote, pulled out the safety features and safeguards imbedded in the system by law.

There is something palpably democratic when voters write their own choices, cast their ballots and then stay to watch them counted. The spot and instant score is publicly witnessed and validated by both the partisan watchers and the people.

This participatory ingredient of elections has been taken away by the PCOS system.

(First published in the Philippine STAR of December 11, 2014)

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