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Opinion by Alvin Capino

When Commission on Elections Commissioner Rene Sarmiento was asked what the expected budget would be for the 2013 mid-term elections, his stunning answer was P15 to P20 billion.

The assumption, of course, is that the mid-term elections, where we will elect 12 senators as well as district congressmen, party-list representatives and local officials from governor down to municipal councilor would be computerized.

It seems that it's already a given that the next elections would be computerized after the highly successful computerized elections last May.

The public, based on the results of both the Pulse Asia and the Social Weather Stations opinion polls, was satisfied with the conduct of the computerized polls. Filipinos consider that election, where winners for national position were known in days and not weeks, the most credible among previous elections.

Losing vice presidential candidate Mar Roxas, of course, is one of the few dissenters to this overwhelming public approval of the May 2010 elections but that's another story.

An automated election is here to stay. Reverting to the manual system of voting in 2013 would be welcomed only by the election cheating syndicates who must have lost millions with the advent of automated elections. A return to the fraud-ridden manual counting and transmission would be a major step backward for the Philippines; such a move would erode the integrity of our electoral system which the recent automated elections has restored.

The cost would be a big impediment to doing another automated election in 2013 and in future national elections. The P15-P20 billion price tag to automate the 2013 elections is a bit too much. But this is the reality under the present approach adopted by our legislators where we are supposed to bid out the hardware and software needed for the computerized elections for each and every time elections are held.

Under this system, the machines (accounting for the bulk of the expense), were only leased. Therefore, a new bidding would have to be held for the 2013 polls.

Senator Ferdinand Marcos Jr., who chaired the public hearing of the Senate Committee on Local Government, questioned Comelec officials about their estimates of elections expenses.

'Are you serious'?  Marcos asked when the Comelec officials mentioned the P15-P20 billion estimates for the 2013 elections.

Marcos was understandably skeptical. He pointed out that the cost of implementing the 2010 automated polls was P11 billion; this already included the lease of the precinct count optical scan machines from Smartmatic-TIM used for the computerized counting and canvassing, the printing of the ballots, and the training of election personnel.

Comelec Gregorio Larrazabal explained to the senators present during the hearing that the Smartmatic-TIM bid of P7.3 billion was very low because Smartmatic wanted to use the Philippine automated elections to showcase its capability to provide reliable hardware and software for automated elections.

Smartmatic, it appears, is offering its automated election system to several countries and the automated 2010 Philippine elections was the best marketing tool for the company. Unlike its rivals which can only make unproven claims about their automated election capabilities, all Smartmatic has to do is point to its success in the Philippines under the most trying conditions.

Our Karambola sa dwIZ co-host former Makati Rep. Teddy Boy Locsin, who headed the House of Representatives Committee on Suffrage and Electoral Reforms, has confirmed what Larrazabal said.

Locsin says that he doubts whether Smartmatic made much money in its contract with Comelec. He said Smartmatic will be hitting the proverbial jackpot when other countries start using Smartmatic for their automated elections.

In fact, it's possible that Smartmatic did not make any money at all with its bid which, if I am not mistaken, was some P3 billion lower than the bid of its closest bidding rival from the United States.

Comelec, of course, has the option to continue with an automated election at a fraction of the P15-P20 billion cost estimate given by Sarmiento.

All Comelec has to do is to exercise the purchase option that has been included in its contract with Smartmatic-TIM. Under this option, Comelec will pay P2 billion to purchase the more than 42,200 PCOS machines used in the 2010 elections. These are now stored in the Smartmatic warehouse in Cabuyao, Laguna.

Purchasing the Smartmatic PCOS machines appears to be the more viable option for Comelec instead of going through another drawn-out bidding process to automate the 2013 elections. Such would involve another set of machines and another technology.

If Comelec decides to buy the PCOS machines, then it would only spend between P4 billion and P5 billion for the automation services, according to Smartmatic-TIM. This is half of the P11 billion bill for the May 2010 automation and a third of what the poll body estimates should a new bidding be conducted.

Smartmatic-TIM has assured the government that the machines would not become obsolete since the software would be modified and improved to remained attuned to new developments in information technology.

It said that Smartmatic-TIM will provide all possible support to make the machines will remain tamper-proof and cheat proof.

Dennis Villorente, director of the Advanced Science and Technology Institute of the Department of Science and Technology, has confirmed before the House Suffrage and Electoral Reform Committee that the Smartmatic PCOS machines garnered 100-percent accurate reading results during the tests he had done before the elections.

Al Vitangol III, a certified hacking forensic investigator, said during a House hearing that the vote-counting results were automatically saved in a write-protected file in the compact flash cards inside the PCOS units and thus could not be tampered with.

Demonstrations during the House committee inspection trip to the Smartmatic-TIM Cabuyao plant showed that the PCOS machines did not count additional transmissions of the same election returns, that the audit logs could not be tampered with because the machine that was tested did not start up when it was fed its a CF card with an edited log, and efforts to delete a file on the protected backup CF card failed.

In other words, automation worked. So why do we want to reinvent the wheel?

Source: Manila Standard Today: Buy the Smartmatic machines