Full automation of polls may be ‘chaotic’

Published by rudy Date posted on April 13, 2009

First of two parts

The planned automation of national and local elections in May next year could end up a disaster.

Observers fear this could happen as poll officials ignore dire warnings of a chaotic environment that might lead to massive failure of elections.
 
Already, political operators are toying with strategies to sow confusion in the local races that could affect the outcome of the presidential, vice-presidential and senatorial races.
 
At the center of this is the decision of the Commission on Elections to automate both the national and local races. With P11.3 billion budget, the poll body is going full blast in ensuring that the country holds the first modernized elections nationwide.
 
Various groups are divided on this issue. Some are pressing for the automation of national elections only while others want only the canvassing to be computerized.
 
About 10 companies have signified their intention to participate in the latest attempt to modernize the election process bid and on April 27, the Comelec will open the bids for the procurement and lease of some 80,000 machines that will count and consolidate the votes.
 
Hopes are high that automation will finally push through and the Comelec, under the chairmanship of former Justice Jose Melo, will make history.
 
Depending on whose perspective, however, it could be a catastrophe.
 
Synchronized automation?
 
The law on automation, Republic Act 9369, adopted in Jan. 2007, mandates Comelec “to proscribe adoption and use of the most suitable technology of demonstrated capability” for the electoral exercise.
 
It is an amendment to RA 8436, the original law on automation, which authorized Comelec “to use an automated election system…for the process of voting, counting of votes and canvassing/consolidation and transmittal of results of electoral exercises…”
 
RA 9369 does not specify however, whether automation should only be for national positions, or whether it also covers local positions.
 
Commissioner Rene Sarmiento says the Comelec interprets the law as providing for automation in both the national and local races.
 
But critics warn that full automation is an open invitation to disaster. There are two schools of thought opposing this.
 
One group is led by former Comelec chair Christian Monsod and information technology expert Gus Lagman, both advocating an open election system (OES).  In this set-up, the manual count of votes is retained and only the canvassing of results is computerized.
 
Monsod’s group argues that cheating in the precinct level is minimal and that election fraud is concentrated and massive in the canvass of votes in the municipal and provincial level. Simply said, the cheating is not in the counting but in the canvassing.
 
The group said manual counting of votes would ensure transparency in the poll process. Cheating in the canvassing can be addressed by computerization, using software that could be accessed by everyone.
 
But Monsod’s proposal suffers a legal challenge since it will require an amendment to RA 9369. Commissioner Nicodemo Ferrer says RA 9369 provides for automation from the counting to the transmittal of results and that amending the law is already out of the question given the limited time.
 
The other group is composed of election strategists who are familiar with what’s happening on the ground. This group, which includes several congressmen, is pushing for the automation of the national race only.
 
Their arguments make sense on a practical level.
 
Fixing what isn’t broken
 
This group maintains that computerizing the local race could complicate matters. “The problem is the slow count in the national race. In the local race, there is no problem in the counting. So why fix something that is not broken,” says political consultant and strategist Perry Callanta.
 
Callanta, who counts local politicians as clients, says synchronizing the national and local races could present intended and unintended logistical problems, before during and after the elections.
 
The most obvious challenge is the size and the names printed in ballot paper itself, which will be unique in each of the provinces and municipalities. “We will have more than 1,600 distinct ballots, to include the district races,” Callanta says.
 
Callanta says depending on the number of candidates in the local races, ballot sizes in each municipality, or cities could vary. For example, one town may have as many as 100 candidates for municipal councilors and the neighboring town as few as 20 aspirants. “It is not far-fetched that some ballots may be as long as five meters and others one meter. We are not yet talking about the party-list groups which may number more than a hundred.”
 
Too, it is doubtful whether the National Printing Office, burdened with the responsibility of printing 1,600 distinct ballots, and in different quantities (depending on the population of the municipality, district or city) could be up to the job, with the limited time allotted for the printing of the ballots. Commissioner Nicodemo Ferrer says printing of the ballots will start in April.
 
Ferrer says Comelec will require the participating bidders to come up with a uniform ballot size that could contain as many as 300 names back to back, to address the issue of uneven number of candidates. The front ballot box will be for the national positions and the back page for the local positions
 
Nov. 30 deadline
 
Under the law, the NPO (or the Bangko Sentral ng Pilipinas) is the official printer of the ballots but allows the hiring of private printers if necessity requires it. The practice of tapping private printers, while it ensures that the deadline is met, has raised suspicions on the integrity of the ballots.
 
For the May 2010 preparations, such situation is likely to happen again, even when the deadline for the filing of certificate of candidacy in both the local and national races would be earlier than usual.
 
The Comelec has set the deadline for the filing of COC on November 30, five months before the poll exercise. Within this period, the Comelec is expected to prune the list of candidates for printing in the ballot.
 
The pruning of the list of national and local candidates, including the party-list groups, before the ballots are printed, is not as easy as it seems despite the early deadline.
 
In the local level where the race is more intense and personal, candidates are known to resort to strategies and tricks to undermine their rivals. One might resort to fielding candidates meant to confuse voters between the legitimate and the nuisance candidates.
 
In previous elections, the deadline in the in the filing of COC for local candidates is set 45 days before the elections (for the national positions, 90 days). Removing the nuisance candidates starts from the deadline and continues during the campaign period—a period that incidentally helps Comelec in weeding out those who are only out to make a mockery of the elections.
 
But with the COC deadline still months away before the campaign period, there is no way that Comelec could justifiably strike out nuisance candidates from the official list since the campaign has not yet officially begun, Callente argues. “What would be the basis of Comelec? What if a local candidate or candidates declared as nuisance are able to come up with money to finance their campaign between Nov. 30 and the official campaign period? In the meantime, there is the deadline to print the ballots.”
 
The delay in resolving qualification issues of local candidates could affect the printing of ballots, Callanta adds.
 
Transparent
 
For almost two decades, the automation of elections has been the Holy Grail of the Comelec.
 
It came close in automating the 2004 national race but the intervention of the Supreme Court –it struck down the project for alleged violation of the bidding process– denied Comelec what could have been a historic first.
 
This time, learning from that fatal experience, the Comelec has vowed to be transparent and make it work. –Aries C. Rufo, Abs-bnnews.com/Newsbreak

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