Wake Up, Philippines!

It’s now or never for poll automation in 2010

Posted in comelec by Erineus on February 25, 2009

Today’s Ash Wednesday marks the start of the observance of Lenten season in the Christian world. A few more weeks, the schoolyear ends and summer vacation is here. Speaking of vacation, I took the opportunity in last Monday’s no school classes due to the EDSA-1 anniversary holiday to assist my twin sons to fulfill their patriotic duty to register as first time voters.

We went to the Commission on Elections (Comelec) office where they were supposed to personally file their registration. This is because they would have to be photographed through Comelec’s computer machine. The same computer also processes other biometric data such as the voter’s signature and thumbmarks.

That was actually the second time that my sons and I went to the Comelec office to register. We tried the first time during their Christmas break in December. Unfortunately, the Comelec also decided to observe a break from their registration for new voters. I really found it odd for the poll body to jibe their Christmas break at the same time with school vacation when it is the only opportunity for new voters, most of them in college, to register while there are no classes.

It was a good thing this time President Arroyo did not declare a non-working holiday in all government and private offices on Monday for the celebration of the EDSA-1 anniversary. The Palace has obviously given in to the concerns, especially from the business community, on the repercussions to the country’s productivity of long weekend holidays. At these times of the global financial crisis, it would not do well for our country’s economy to have so many non-working days just to promote the “holiday economics” of the administration.

It was quite a surprise to me, though, to see there was a queue of people trying to register also as voters. I’ve noted there were color-coded voter’s registration forms. My sons were given white registration forms, I presume, for first time voters. The pink-edged registration forms, I gathered are for either transferees or for voters who want to reactivate their voter’s status after being de-listed.

Under our election laws, the Comelec has the power to de-list voters who did not participate in two consecutive elections in our country. This is one of the reasons, among others, I was told why there were cases of voters who do not find their names in the Comelec master list when they go to polling precincts by the time they decide to vote.

Anyway, the registration process took about an hour or so, because of the queue. They filled the registration forms in three copies one after the other. It was a tedious task for my sons who complained why the Comelec did not just provide a carbon paper. At the end of this process, the registrant is given a detached lower portion of one of the three copies. It will serve as their claim form to get their Comelec voter’s ID.

I seriously doubt as to how soon, if ever, my sons would get their Comelec voter’s ID. From my own experience, we even had ours registered no less at Malacañang Palace sometime in 2003 when the Comelec demonstrated their newly acquired data-capturing computer machines. It was supposed to usher in the modernization program of the Comelec on the use of automated election process by the holding of May 2010 elections. But believe you me, none of us Palace press corps got our Comelec voters’ ID card up to now.

The Comelec chief at that time was Benjamin Abalos who, as later events unfolded, got himself an early retirement last year. This was after Abalos got implicated in allegedly “brokering” for ZTE Corp. of China on the purported overpriced contract on the national broadband network (NBN) project of the government. As it turned out, Abalos was busy with projects other than his principal task to steer the Comelec modernization program as chairman of the poll body.

With retired Supreme Court (SC) Associate Justice Jose Melo now as the chairman of the Comelec, there has been renewed efforts by the poll body to meet that same goal: to automate Philippine elections by 2010. Upon advice of a panel of technical experts, the poll body earlier approved the use of the optical mark reader (OMR). The Comelec chose the OMR because this has “paper trail” or paper audit as proof of voting.

The use of this OMR technology was successfully tested in the last elections in the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (ARMM). In OMR, the names of candidates are printed on a paper and voters choose their candidates by shading with pencil the corresponding ovals. It was designed to make it user-friendly. A voter need not be techno-savvy.

The Comelec asked for at least P11.3 billion in supplemental budget it submitted to the Palace last year. In turn, the Palace endorsed this to Congress for immediate approval to meet the timetable for automated elections by 2010. The technical working committee has already drafted the terms of reference (TOR) that spells out the financial and technical requirements for the OMR machines. Melo earlier expressed the hope that by Feb. 15, the budget has already been released so the poll body could start having the TOR published for bidding purposes.

It’s already way past that timeline. Hence, Comelec officials are getting worried, should I say in panic already, as Congress has yet to approve the automation budget. Our lawmakers are again scheduled to have their congressional recess by March 7 until after the Holy Week on April 12.

The Comelec chief echoed apprehensions about a new move in Congress to hold a “hybrid” or two systems of combined manual and automated elections. This new twist could further delay the approval of the Comelec’s supplemental budget. And with Charter change debate stirred anew in Congress, more trouble brews for the desired automation of the 2010 presidential elections.

Melo recalculated yesterday their timeline to get the budget before April 2, the deadline for the release of the TOR. Any later date than that, the Comelec estimated, will mean they have to go back to manual elections. He candidly admitted his fears “the Garcis in the Comelec would be alive once again” when the 2010 polls are done manually as usual. Everyone probably knows by now who “Garci” is.

View previous articles of this column.

By Marichu A. Villanueva

Updated February 25, 2009 12:00 AM


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