Automation problems could scrap 2016 polls

AN election lawyer warned Monday there might be no election in 2016 if the Supreme Court scraps the P268 million contract for the repair and refurbishment of 81,000 vote counting machines.

Lawyer Romulo Macalintal said the decision of the Supreme Court to stop the implementation of the contract might cause “unreasonable delay” and greatly affect the timetable of the Commission on Elections to prepare for the 2016 national polls.

In the worst-case scenario, Macalinatal said, the Court could nullify the contract, forcing the Comelec to hold another bidding. Even if another bidder wins, he added, Smartmatic is not expected to disclose its technology to the winning bidder.

“If this happens, we can say goodbye to an automated election or [have] no election at all in May 2016,” he said.

Macalintal also discounted manual elections because the Automated Election Law does not allow the conduct of a manual count unless lawmakers amend the rules.

The lawyer said the Court’s issuance of a temporary restraining order on the Comelec-Smartmatic contract was “highly impractical.”

“It will unreasonably delay the diagnosis of these machines and might affect the timetable of the Comelec to prepare for the 2016 national elections,” he said.

The Comelec should have six months to complete the diagnostics and repair process, and there are only 12 months left before the local and national elections, he said.

He urged the Court to immediately lift its TRO so that the refurbishment process could continue.

“The diagnosis and maintenance of these PCOS machines could be undertaken by Smartmatic pending final decision on the said petition so that if SC says the contract is valid, then no time is lost in diagnosing and maintaining these machines,” Macalintal said.

On the other hand, if the Court declares the contract invalid, the country faces the prospect of having no elections in 2016, unless the law is amended to allow a manual count, he said.

Last week, Comelec spokesman James Jimenez admitted that there was a possibility that the agency might return to manual voting if the PCOS contract is struck down.

But he added that the probability of a manual count was low.

“There are plenty of scenarios. That’s why we had an emergency meeting to firm up Plans A to Z,” he said.

Jimenez said the Comelec is looking into the possibility of getting its own IT experts to refurbish the machines instead of commissioning Smartatic or holding another public bidding.

On Dec. 23, 2014, the Comelec en banc decided to forgo public bidding and awarded a negotiated contract to Smartmatic-TIM for the refurbishing project.

The Integrated Bar of the Philippines, however, challenged the negotiated contract before the Supreme Court and said the law requires a public bidding.

Lawmakers voiced concern over the possibility that the elections might not be held in 2016.

House Deputy Minority Leader Silvestre Bello III of 1-BAP party-list and Rep. Rufus Rodriguez of Cagayan de Oro agreed with Macalintal.

But Cavite Rep. Elpidio Barzaga, Jr., vice chairman of the House committee on electoral reforms and suffrage, disputed Macalintal’s warning.

“I do not think a no election scenario will happen. The Supreme Court knows that it has to decide immediately on the repair or refurbishing issue of thePCOS machines,” Barzaga said. “I am positive that the Supreme Court will sustain the validity of the contract after hearing the oral argument of the parties.”

Isabela Rep. Rodolfo Albano III, a member of the minority bloc, said that whether through automation or a manual count, the 2016 elections should proceed as scheduled.

“The Constitution is higher than any law and it mandates us to elect our leaders at a definite date. So whether the elections in 2016 will be done through automation or manually, it does not matter. We should carry out the constitutional mandate,” Albano said.

The Comelec said last week that reverting to a manual count was better than postponing the 2016 elections.

“Manual elections are better than no elections,” said acting Comelec chairman Christian Lim “Having no elections will be unacceptable to many.”

Lim said deferring the national elections might trigger a “civil war” even as some lawmakers who have been supportive of Smartmatic said Comelec officials could be impeached for failing to hold automated elections as mandated by the law.

But Jimenez said the poll body will do everything possible to ensure automated elections in May next year.

“A return to manual elections is not as rosy as some may think. It is not a nostalgic return to paradise as one would like to believe,” Jimenez said.

He said reverting to manual polls would mean additional costs to pay public school teachers, poll clerks and administrative staff, among others.

“This is aside from the return of the threats of vote-buying, ballot-snatching and vote-padding and shaving,” Jimenez said.

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