Make or break for poll automation in 2010

Posted at 04/13/2009 1:35 PM | Updated as of 04/14/2009 12:59 PM

First of two parts

Second of two parts
 
With a gargantuan P11.3 billion budget, poll officials say it will be make or break in next year’s May polls. They insist that the law provides computerization for both the national and local races.
 
Commissioner Nicodemo Ferrer says some House members lobbied for automation of the national race only while retaining the manual system in the local race.
 
“We would be violating the law if we do not automate the entire elections. That’s why we asked for a huge budget,” Ferrer tells abs-cbnnews.com/Newsbreak.
 
He says Comelec argued with congressmen that “we might be sending the wrong signal to the public if we automate only the national positions. Are we telling them that they (congressmen) will commit cheating that is why they are for the manual system?”
 
Critic points out, however, that synchronizing the national and local races is an invitation to disaster. “It’s going to be chaotic,” says election lawyer Sixto Brillantes.
 
For the computerized May 2010 polls, the Comelec is clustering more than 300,000 precincts nationwide to maximize the 80,000 counting machines that will be leased. Five precincts, clustered as one, will be serviced by one machine.
 
Roughly, 60,000 counting machines will be used while the remaining 20,000 will act as backup. A machine is intended to count a maximum of 1,000 ballots, representing the maximum number of voters in one clustered precinct.
 
Brillantes, who supports the open election system proposed by former Comelec chair Christian Monsod, says it will be like a “marketplace” in the precincts. “You have 1,000 people trooping in one clustered precinct. There could be voting and counting problems if order is not ensured.”
 
But more than the physical problems in the clustering of precincts and one machine servicing five precincts, some argue that automating both the national and the local elections is not practical.
 
Hybrid system
 
One group proposing a hybrid system---automation for the national positions and manual system for the local—warns that computerizing the local race would expose the national  count and canvass to the usual dirty tricks in the local level.
 
 “A local politician would know in which area he/she would lose. Or his rival’s bailiwick. What if that candidate sabotages the machine in that place to prevent the votes from being counted? Then you also affect the counting in the national positions,” Perry Callanta, a political consultant and election strategist says.
 
Callanta, who is also a grassroots organizer, says there are intricacies in local races that machines cannot address like intimidation, vote buying and negative voting. Moreover, man-made delays in the local level would drag the count in national positions since the ballots containing the votes on national and local positions are one and the same and would be counted by the same machines. “The purpose of automation, which is to have a fast count in the national race, is then defeated.”
 
In batting for the automation of national positions only, Callanta says the primary purpose of automation, in the first place, is to speed up the count and canvass in the national race. “But we have no problem in the local count.”
 
Callanta’s suggestion to separate the automation is quite simple. Ballots can be manufactured in such a way that the portion for local positions can be detached from the national positions. Two separate ballot boxes will then be used, one for the national and the other for the local positions.
 
While the manual counting is ongoing in the precinct level, the boxes containing the ballots for the national positions can then be brought to the municipal hall or to the area where the machines are stationed. This avoids the mess that usually happens in the counting, with election watchers of the national and local candidates congregating in one place.
 
Counting only the national posts, the machines are thus spared from the devious machinations of those who want to delay the count for one reason or another. Placing them in municipal hall also makes sense, security wise.
 
Comelec wouldn’t budge
 
But the Comelec would not have it any other way.
 
Commissioner Rene Sarmiento, in defending the Comelec decision to automate both the national and the local races, says that 99 percent of election protests brought to the Comelec are from the local level and these involved misappreciation of ballots. Automating the local elections would eliminate this problem.
 
“Computerization would remove the four Ms: misreading, misappreciation of ballots, misbehavior and miscounting,” Sarmiento says. “These are fraud committed in the precinct level.”
 
Callanta says the computerization of the local race “will make it easier and cheaper for local candidates to cheat.” One only has to connive with an NPO staff to advertently delete the name of a rival from being printed in the ballot. The bolder ones could pull off tricks that will result in the malfunction of the machines. “You don’t have to pay the voters. You only pay one willing NPO staff or hire goons to destroy the machines and the backup ones.”
 
But Ferrer says the Board of Election Inspectors  can resort to manual counting “if the machines fails in that locality.” He says there will be technicians that will attend to any malfunction. “But there is no prohibition that the ballots cannot be counted manually if the machines don’t work.”
 
Former Commissioner Mehol Sadain urges critics to allow the Comelec to perform its job in implementing computerization without interference, noting that “too many cooks spoil the broth.” He stressed that the Comelec’s independence should be respected.
 
His only concern is the limited time for the Comelec to prepare for the nationwide elections, with only a year left.
 
He recalled that the poll body during his time had awarded the contract to the bidder for the 2004 elections with plenty of time left for the firm to produce the counting machines and for Comelec to train and educate people on automation.
 
Worst-case scenario
 
Can automation be pulled off?
 
Brillantes says it will be nothing short of a miracle for a smooth implementation of full computerization, considering the risks. “Comelec will have to be very strict and very detailed in its implementing rules.”
 
He said he had advised Comelec to go slow on automation, and follow the initial intention of RA 9369, which is the automation of two highly urbanized cities and two provinces each in Luzon, Visayas and Mindanao.
 
This will give the Comelec a first-hand experience and provide lessons that can be anticipated for a nationwide computerization, Brillantes said.
 
Brillantes does not discount the possibility that massive failure of elections could occur nationwide and worst, may affect the outcome of the senatorial as well as the presidential and vice-presidential races. If no president-elect is declared before President Arroyo steps down in June 30, 2010, a leadership crisis might erupt. “The Constitution is silent on the vacancy in case of massive failure of elections. There is no hold-over provision.”
 
As the vice-presidential post is also affected by the massive failure of elections, Brillantes says what may be applicable in such a case is the provision in Sec. 7, Article II which states that “where no President and Vice-President shall have been chosen….the President of the Senate or in case of his inability, the Speaker of the House of Representatives…..shall act as President until a President or a Vice-President shall have been chosen and qualified.”
 
But then the terms of Juan Ponce Enrile, current Senate president, and House Speaker Prospero Nograles, are also set to expire on June 30, 2010. That raises questions if they could act as lawful acting president, when their term expires before a new President is elected.
 
A possible scramble for the top positions in the Senate and the House could ensue, knowing it is a once in a lifetime opportunity for the Presidency. “It is big, big trouble if automation blows on our face,” Brillantes says.

Part 1: Full automation of polls may be ‘chaotic’