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MANILA, Philippines, October 25, 2009. - Who's afraid of the voting machines? You shouldn't be, because they're easier to use than automated teller machines (ATMs) and high-tech cell phones.

Commission on Elections (Comelec) Chairman Jose Melo yesterday took advantage of the 18th anniversary celebration of the Parish Pastoral Council for Responsible Voting (PPCRV), the Catholic Church's election watchdog, to assuage the public's fear of using the Precinct Count Optical Scan (PCOS) machines in the 2010 elections.

'Our voters should not be afraid of the machines. It is just a simple counting machine' There should be no fear factor there. The cellular phones are even more complicated,' he told hundreds of PPCRV officers and members gathered at the Manila Cathedral School in Tondo, Manila.

Using the PCOS is just like using the ATM, he said. The users will be given step-by-step instructions on how to cast their votes.

Melo said the Comelec will release an illustrated manual for the machines next month and will be providing handouts containing instructions to the Board of Election Inspectors.

He said voters should already know who to vote for when they come to the polling precincts. It will help if they prepare a list of their choices.

Voters will shade the space beside the names of their chosen candidates. Mistakes will make their vote invalid.

Give automation a chance

Melo also asked the PPCRV to help the Comelec ease the concern of voters in using the new technology.

'The main thrust of the PPCRV is to be the guardian of the sovereign people and to educate our voters, to allay the fears of the voters' The problem lies with how the voters think,' he said.

But Manila Auxiliary Bishop Broderick Pabillo expressed fear that using the PCOS would be a 'challenge' for many Filipinos, particularly those who have not used a computer.

He said there is also no certainty the Comelec will be able to demonstrate how to use the PCOS in every remote area in time for the 2010 elections.

The secrecy of the ballot will also not be protected because the person assisting the computer-illiterate voter will see it.

'Our appeal to Chairman Melo is to come out with a manual or directions on how to vote under an automated election,' Bishop Pabillo said.

'Now is the time for us to ask our questions to the Comelec and not to Smartmatic, because it is the Comelec that is answerable to the country' We should remove the doubts in the minds of the people,' he said.

No partial automation

The House of Representatives has passed a resolution asking the Comelec to 'seriously consider the use of partial automated election system' in the 2010 polls, citing various discrepancies.

Resolution 1465, signed by 12 congressmen, asked the Comelec to revert to manual voting and precinct counting, but automate the canvassing of votes using the simultaneous electronic transmission system of the PCOS to transmit the votes from the precincts to the National Board of Canvassers, and finally to Congress.

The signatories are House Deputy Speakers Pablo Garcia, Arnulfo Fuentebella and Eric Singson and Reps. Carlos Padilla (Nueva Vizcaya), Rodolfo Plaza (Agusan del Sur), Eduardo Joson (Nueva Ecija), Benhur Salimbangon (Cebu), Mark Llandro Mendoza (Batangas), Jeci Lapus (Tarlac), Antonio Alvarez (Palawan), Jonathan de la Cruz (Abakada-Guro), and Leonida Chavez (Butil).

But Melo said the commission will not heed the lawmakers' request.  

'There's no turning back. I hope they would give automation a chance,' said Melo, who has yet to receive a copy of the resolution.

The lawmakers argued that the use of PCOS machines violate Republic Act 9369 or the Poll Automation Law because it mandates the use of direct recording electronics machines.

But Melo said the law is not 'technology specific.'

Lawmakers also argued that the Comelec has not addressed the 'risks, vulnerabilities, threats and other logistic nightmares' identified by technology experts that will 'seriously cause failure of elections.'

Melo maintained that the Supreme Court had cleared the automation of next year's polls when it rejected the petition of the Concerned Citizens Movement led by University of the Philippines professor and lawyer Harry Roque.

'I think it has been settled by the Supreme Court. We will push through with the automation,' he added. ' With Sheila Crisostomo.