MANILA, Philippines – For almost the entire year, the Commission on Elections (Comelec) has been preoccupied with the full automation of the local and national polls on May 10, 2010.
“It’s been a very exciting year. There were lots of things that had to be done but everything was a prelude to a much bigger event – the automated elections in 2010,” said Comelec Chairman Jose Melo.
Melo said the Comelec is confident that the automated polls would push through despite the many obstacles that might still come their way.
“It’s about time we automate our elections. Let’s give it a chance,” he said.
Skeptics were quick to warn the people of “automated cheating” after the plan to computerize the polls was made.
The Comelec had been swamped with proposals to use various technologies, including the direct recording electronics, optical mark reader, open election system, the precinct count optical scan (PCOS) and even a “hybrid” of manual and automation systems in certain areas of the countries.
The PCOS system was eventually chosen upon the recommendation of the multi-sector Comelec Advisory Council. The technology involves manual voting through shading of ovals corresponding to the names of the candidates and computerized counting and canvassing of ballots and transmission of results.
As early as January, several firms had shown interest to supply the machines but the project took off only in March when Congress approved the P11,223,618,400 budget for automation.
The Comelec’s Special Bids and Awards Committee conducted a bidding last May among seven consortiums that offered to supply the PCOS machines.
The consortium of Netherlands-based Smartmatic International Corp. and the Philippines’ Total Information Management Corp. (TIM) was chosen to supply the 82,200 PCOS machines after hurdling the legal, technical and financial screenings. Its bid offer was P7,191,484,739.
But even before the contract was signed, the relationship between the two firms turned sour over the control of finances and scope of liabilities. This raised fears that the automation would not push through since the Comelec would no longer have time to call a second bidding in case the partnership breaks off.
An infuriated Melo asked Smartmatic and TIM to settle their differences or face legal action. The partners made up and the P7.2-billion contract was signed last June 9.
The following month, however, the Concerned Citizen’s Movement (CCM) filed a petition with the Supreme Court (SC) to seek the nullification of the automation contract, citing the lack of a joint venture agreement between the two firms during the bidding process.
The SC junked CCM’s petition, effectively giving the Comelec the go-signal to continue the automation.
The manufacturing of the PCOS machines is now underway in the plant of Smartmatic in Shanghai, China. Based on Comelec’s timeline, all the machines must be delivered by January 2010.
So far, the poll body has received 120 units of PCOS machines and these are being used in its voter’s education drive. By January, the training of teachers who will serve as Board of Election Inspectors will begin using the machines.
People have also been dispatched across the country to conduct site survey to determine the availability of telecommunication facilities that will be needed to transmit the election results.
The Comelec is clustering several precincts to maximize the use of the PCOS machines.
With automation, the country’s next president should officially be known in two days, instead of the usual two to three weeks.
Electoral fraud, particularly ballot snatching, is expected to be significantly minimized since ballots will no longer be manually transported from the polling precincts to the canvassing centers, but will be done through electronic transmission.
Filing of certificates of candidacy
On Nov. 20, the filing of certificates of candidacy (COCs) by those gunning for the 17,888 posts up for grabs in 2010 started. Up for grabs are the positions of president and vice president; 12 senators; 222 district congressmen; 80 governors; 80 vice governors; 762 provincial board members; 120 each for city mayors and city vice mayors; 1,514 each for municipal mayors and vice municipal mayors; 1,346 for city councilors and 12,116 for municipal councilors.
The figure does not include the seats at the House of Representatives that can be occupied by winning party-list organizations.
The filing ended last Dec. 1 with 99 COCs filed for president, 20 for vice president and 158 for senator. A total of 306 party-list groups have lodged their manifestation of intent to run.
Last Dec. 15, the Comelec, upon the recommendation of the poll body’s law department, had given due course to the presidential bids of the Liberal Party’s Benigno “Noynoy” Aquino III, Ang Kapatiran’s John Carlos delos Reyes, Pwersa ng Masang Pilipino ‘s Joseph Estrada, Bagumbayan Party’s Richard Gordon, independent Jamby Madrigal, Lakas-Kampi-CMD’s Gilbert Teodoro, Bangon Pilipinas ‘ Eddie Villanueva, and Nacionalista Party’s Manuel Villar.
Those declared qualified to run for vice-president are PDP-Laban’s Jejomar Binay, Ang Kapatiran’s Dominador Chipeco, Bagumbayan’s Bayani Fernando, Nationalist People’s Coalition’s Loren Legarda, Lakas-Kampi-CMD’s Eduardo Manzano, LP’s Mar Roxas, Kilusang Bagong Lipunan’s Jay Sonza, and Bangon Pilipinas’ Perfecto Yasay.
The Comelec approved the candidacy of only 58 out of the 158 aspirants for senator.
Among those deemed qualified are retired Army officer and Bantay party-list Rep. Jovito Palparan, who had been investigated by a commission headed by Melo for human rights abuses, and detained Marine Col. Ariel Querubin of the Magdalo group.
Those declared nuisance candidates include environmentalist Nicanor Perlas, Marcos loyalist Oliver Lozano, Elly Pamatong and former Manila Rep. Mark Jimenez, who are all gunning for president, and detained Brig. Gen. Danilo Lim of the Magdalo group who is eyeing a Senate seat.
Based on the Comelec’s timeline, the printing of the ballots starts in January 2010.
Infomercials and premature campaigning
On Nov. 26, efforts to level the playing field among candidates met a stumbling block when the SC, voting 9-5, decriminalized premature campaigning by voiding Section 80 of Batas Pambansa 881 or the Omnibus Election Code (OEC) of 1985.
The vote was a reversal of its September ruling, voting 8-7, on the case of Mayor Rosalinda Penera of Sto. Monica, Surigao del Norte who was disqualified for holding a motorcade right after filing her COC in the 2007 midterm polls.
The first decision stated that an OEC provision – which considers one a candidate after filing a COC – was still in effect despite the passage of Republic Act 9369 or the Poll Automation Law of 2007. Under RA 9369, one becomes a candidate after filing COC and when the campaign period starts.
With the new ruling, candidates can start selling themselves even before the start of the campaign period – from Feb. 8 to May 8, 2010 for national positions and March 26 to May 8, 2010 for local polls.
There was less confusion during previous polls because the campaign period started the day after the deadline for the filing of COCs.
The Comelec and various poll watchdogs have criticized the ruling, which they believe favors the moneyed and the prominent candidates.
Appointed officials to remain in office
Last Dec. 1, the SC once again issued a controversial decision when it struck down provisions in the OEC and RA 9369 that deemed appointive officials resigned after they have filed their COCs.
The Court ruled that these provisions violate the equal protection clause in the Constitution, as they discriminate against appointive officials.
The Comelec wanted the ruling reversed as it goes against the principle of conflict of interest, as best evidenced by the cases of its six election officers who are seeking elective posts in 2010.
The agency was to file a motion for reconsideration to ask the high tribunal to reverse its decision. It strongly believes that there is enough ground to question the SC ruling because of the dissenting opinions of Chief Justice Reynato Puno and two other SC justices.
Granting the petition of the Kabataan party-list, the SC had directed the Comelec to extend the voter’s registration up to Jan. 9, 2010 to accommodate more registrants.
The SC gave weight to Kabataan’s argument that the shortening of the period for registration of voters by the Comelec was illegal under Republic Act 8189 or the Voter’s Registration Act of 1996. It insisted that the law provides that “no registration shall be conducted during the period starting 120 days before a regular election and 90 days before a special election.”
There have been calls to extend the deadline of the voter’s registration but these were rejected by the Comelec, which held that voters were given enough time to sign up for the 2010 polls. The registration lasted for 10 months from Dec. 2, 2008 to Oct. 31, 2009.
The extension involves not only the actual registration but other administrative aspects like hearings by the Comelec’s Election Registration Board on petitions for inclusion or exclusion of voters and completion of the Book of Voters.
But despite its hesitation, the Comelec is bound to implement the SC order.
More party-list groups in the House
The Comelec had proclaimed last April the 32 new party-list congressmen in compliance with an SC ruling that ordered the use of a new formula in assigning party-list seats at the House of Representatives.
The SC had thrown out the so-called Panganiban formula (after former Chief Justice Artemio Panganiban) that was used by the poll body in identifying the winners in the 2007 party-list election.
Under the Panganiban formula, the group that got the highest number of votes was able to occupy a maximum of three House seats while the other winners were limited to only one seat.
But in the 2-4-6 formula upheld by the SC, a group is entitled to one seat for every two percent votes that they get from the votes cast for party-list polls. The maximum seat allocation is three.
This formula had paved the way for the proclamation of Kasanga Rep. Lourdes Arroyo, sister of First Gentleman Mike Arroyo, and Palparan.
While the Comelec poll body was deep in preparations for computerized 2010 polls, it lost Commissioner Leonardo Leonida when the Commission on Appointments did not confirm his nomination.
But in September, Malacañang filled the long vacant seat for commissioner by promoting Comelec regional director for Eastern Visayas Gregorio Larrazabal.
Insiders said the seven-man Comelec has always been lacking one commissioner because the slot was seen as leverage for Malacañang among those seeking a position in the government body.
Prior to Larrazabal’s appointment, former Marawi City Prosecutor Elias Yusoph was also named Comelec commissioner.
With these two appointments, the Comelec hierarchy is now complete with Melo as chairman and Commissioners Rene Sarmiento, Nicodemo Ferrer, Armando Velasco and Lucenito Tagle. –Sheila Crisostomo (The Philippine Star)