THERE is a possibility that the 2016 elections may revert to the old manual system if the Supreme Court rejects the use of the 82,000 Precinct Count Optical Scan machines that were used in previous elections.
“Manual elections remain in the realm of possibilities,” Comelec spokesman James Jimenez said on Wednesday, a day after the SC stopped the controversial P268-million diagnostic and repair deal the Comelec awarded to the Smartmatic-TIM consortium.
“We’re not just talking about one time line. We’re talking about parallel. This is on a parallel track. The rest of preparations are unaffected,” Jimenez said.
Although the probability of returning to manual elections is “low,” Jimenez said the poll body is not discounting the possibility and the Comelec was preparing contingencies.
“[The SC decision] is a significant development [because] that constitutes the bulk of the machines that will be used in 2016,” he said.
“You have to understand that machines are the bulk of machines we will be using. Look at how long we planned the diagnostic. The whole project will last 5 months if we can get TRO lifted [so] early resolution of this TRO would mean we have time to finish the program within the year,’’ he said.
Although the Comelec is also contracting the acquisition of 23,000 more voting machines, that can only cover “a small section of the Philippines,” Jimenez said.
He said the Comelec is considering the possibility of allowing its own computer experts to refurbish the old machines instead of commissioning Smartmatic.
“I believe that we have technical competence to do it. That’s something we can include in the planning. The Comelec is not discounting the possibility of doing that itself,” Jimenez said.
Even retired Comelec chairman Sixto Brillantes Jr., who was severely criticized for pushing the Smartmatic contract although he was already set to retire, is concerned at the possibility that the 2016 elections will revert to the manual system
‘’The possibility of going manual is growing stronger and stronger,” Brillantes said. “The longer it takes to resolve the issue, the more possibility of manual elections coming in.”
The former Comelec chief explained that the election automation law, or Republic Act 9369, specifies that if there is no settlement to the voting machine issue, the poll body has to go back to the manual system.
But another former Comelec commissioner, Gus Lagman, said the Comelec should just diagnose and repair the old PCOS machines itself and discard of those that that are unrepairable.
“It’s the most logical approach to make Comelec & some pro-Smartmatic-TIM congressmen happy. Use the still running PCOS units,” Lagman said. “At the same time try out the more transparent and less expensive technology.
Lagman proposed the so-called transparent and credible election system (TCrES) that “will only use laptops, servers, printers, projectors that Comelec can buy directly from computer shops. Don’t buy any new PCOS.”
The Citizens for Clean and Credible Elections (C3E), which was among the groups that asked the SC to stop the deal, called on the Comelec to abandon its negotiated contract with Smartmatic-TIM.
“Abandon the negotiated contract with Smartmatic. Waste no more time justifying before the Supreme Court a patently unlawful act,” said C3E in a statement.
A TRO, the group said, only proves that they have been right in their opposition to the extended warranty agreement on the repair contract of the PCOS machines.
Instead of insisting its position, C3E said the Comelec should view the SC TRO as a wake-up call for them on how to better handle the electoral system.
“See the SC decision as an opportunity for Comelec to rectify errors and to redeem itself. Be the guardian of people’s vote and the protector of Philippine democracy,” said C3E.
But Jimenez said C3E’s position is premature because the TRO is not yet a final decision on the merits of the case but just an opportunity for the Comelec and Smartmatic-TIM to explain further the details of the deal.
“It does not prove anything to that effect. Again, the TRO is not a decision to the merit. It is just the expression of the SC’s prudence... Please don’t break out the champagne just yet,” said Jimenez.
Smartmatic-TIM President Cesar Flores on the other hand expressed confidence that the firm will be able to surpass a legal hurdle in its P268-million deal with Comelec.
Flores said Smartmatic-TIM is confident that the SC will declare valid its contract with the Comelec.
‘’We respect the ruling of the Supreme Court. We understand that in issuing the TRO, the Court wants to be enlightened on some matters regarding the contract, something we are always more than willing to do,’’ Flores said.
‘’This calls to mind the year 2012 when the Court issued a TRO against the option to purchase. After the oral arguments, the Supreme Court upheld with finality the validity of the contract. Similarly, we are confident that after the Court hears our arguments, it will eventually decide for the soundness and validity of this contract.”
The Comelec-Smartmatic contract was signed on January 30, 2015, three days before the retirement of Comelec Chairman Sixto Brillantes.
The Integrated Bar of the Philippines earlier assailed the deal for not undergoing public bidding. The deal was sealed via direct contracting or single source procurement.
The IBP said the Comelec’s use of “tight time schedule” to justify the deal should not be allowed as it is “not a ground to dispense with the conduct of the public bidding under the law.”
Meanwhile, Smartmatic-TIM welcomes the decision of the SC to dismiss the petition to stop the Comelec from proceeding with the public bidding for the supply, lease, or purchase of Optical Mark Readers and Direct Recording Electronic Machines.
‘’In its judiciousness, the High Court has rightly decided that the Comelec is well within its rights to procure more machines to ensure an even smoother conduct of elections in 2016,’’ Flores said.
The high court said the petition is premature. It noted that Comelec and its Bids and Awards Committee did not have the opportunity to pass upon the matter.