MANILA, Philippines — The country’s elections chief is confident of getting at least P8 billion for poll automation in 2010.
“Malacañang is working on the request for a supplemental budget, which it will submit to Congress for approval,” Commission on Elections Chairman Jose Melo told reporters yesterday.
He said the proposed budget for poll automation was not included in the 2009 budget because it took the poll body’s advisory council a long time to decide on which technology to use for the 2010 elections. The original proposed budget was more than P13 billion.
“The decision of the advisory council came in December, which was way too late because the Palace had already submitted a proposed budget as early as August,” Melo said.
“The decision is even too late for the Palace to immediately request for a supplemental budget,” Melo pointed out.
He also dismissed insinuations that Malacañang was delaying the submission of the request for supplemental budget to halt the computerization project as well as the 2010 presidential elections.
Despite the delay in the release of the supplemental budget, Melo said the Comelec is still on track in its preparations for the poll automation.
“Our time line has not been distorted and I believe our absolute deadline for the budget is still the end of March,” Melo said.
He said the release of the budget should be no later than March to give the Comelec sufficient time to prepare the bidding process.
“It’s the bidding process that will really take months to undertake. The other procedures we can easily do. We are optimistic that we can still do it because Congress and the President are committed to it,” Melo noted.
“We cannot step back, we are not throwing in the towel in implementing poll automation,” he added.
Palace urged to act swiftly
For Sen. Richard Gordon, President Arroyo should submit the proposed supplemental budget to Congress as soon as session resumes on Jan. 19 to dispel speculation that she does not want the elections to push through in 2010.
“There are a lot of rumors circulating that the supplemental budget for poll automation has not been released apparently because of Cha-cha or President Arroyo extending her term,” Gordon said.
“But all of these accusations would dissipate once people see that the government is really working to have honest, speedy and reliable elections through the automation of the electoral system,” he added.
Senators have been urging Mrs. Arroyo to leave a legacy of clean and honest elections as she herself was accused of cheating her way to victory in 2004. She is also being accused of preparing to remain in power beyond 2010 through Charter change.
Gordon, author of the Amended Automated Elections Law, said the budget department should now prepare to submit to Congress the supplemental budget for poll automation, especially after the Comelec said that it had already submitted the P13.9-billion proposal.
He explained that while there was still enough time to automate the 2010 elections, it would be best to start immediately to ensure that everything would be well laid out – from the voting machines to teachers’ training to voters’ education.
Gordon also said the Comelec should prioritize automating the elections more than anything else because a computerized voting and counting system would avert “wholesale cheating” which is very common in manual elections.
“The priority should really be the computerized elections because with automated elections we could avert wholesale cheating, which happens with vote padding and shaving. That could be prevented because voting and counting would be fast with an automated system,” he said.
For her part, Sen. Loren Legarda said the Comelec should make sure the machines for poll automation would be fool-proof otherwise the system would be “next to useless.”
Legarda, who ran for vice president in 2004, claimed she was cheated when she lost to fellow broadcast journalist Noli de Castro.
She said she was concerned about Melo’s admission that the optical mark reader (OMR) technology which the Comelec was proposing to use in the 2010 national elections would not be able to flush out double or multiple registrants.
“In short, flying voters will have a field day running rings around this system for which the Comelec had asked for P13.9 billion in supplemental budget,” Legarda said.
“We cannot have a computerized poll system that can count votes, but which cannot determine whether the votes being counted are authentic or fraudulent,” she added.
Melo was quoted as saying that the system would need cross-matching machines that could identify voters with double or multiple registrations.
The requested budget does not cover funds for cross-matching machines.
Legarda said that without the capability to weed out bogus votes, the system the Comelec wanted to use would only result in a “garbage in, garbage out” situation.
She reiterated that the very essence of employing a computerized system was to guard against poll fraud.
The Comelec earlier chose the OMR system although it had tested another technology – the direct recording electronic system or DRE – which does not only count votes faster but is also capable of identifying voters through biometrics, thus weeding out double registrants.
Melo said the OMR is cheaper than DRE.
But Legarda said the intention to save on cost was misplaced and that the Comelec could not ask voters to make up for the weakness of the OMR by asking them to squeal on flying voters. –Mayen Jaymalin and Aurea Calica, Philippine Star