Poll exec hits Smartmatic for refusing to fix PCOS

MANILA, Philippines (UPDATED) – While she voted to lease 93,000 vote-counting machines from Smartmatic, Commission on Elections (Comelec) Commissioner Rowena Guanzon hit the controversial firm for “pushing the Commission to the edge” to make this difficult move.

In her strongly worded separate opinion, Guanzon said the Smartmatic joint venture (JV) “seemed to have taken advantage of the time constraint” the Comelec is facing. 

The Comelec on Thursday, August 13, decided to lease new 93,000 optical mark readers (OMRs) from Smartmatic. (READ: It’s final: PH to use contentious voting machines)

At the same time, it junked the other option to refurbish 82,000 old precinct count optical scan (PCOS) machines that the Comelec already bought from Smartmatic. The Comelec couldn’t use the old machines without refurbishing these. 

It was a unanimous decision.

Guanzon said she voted “with great sadness.” 

Another Comelec commissioner, Sheriff Abas, wrote in his separate opinion that he cast his vote “with a heavy heart.” 

Comelec's time constraints

"In the beginning, all of us wanted to use the existing PCOS machines for the 2016 elections," Comelec Chairman Andres Bautista explained in a media briefing on Thursday. He said this is "no longer feasible," however, "because mainly of time constraints."

Guanzon agreed that the Comelec “is now burdened with time constraints.”

“What is further deplorable in this whole state of affairs is that Smartmatic JV seemed to have taken advantage of the time constraint the Commission is confronted with,” she said.

She referred to Smartmatic’s decision not to join the bidding for the refurbishment of old PCOS machines. On August 3, Smartmatic cited the lack of time to refurbish the machines for the elections in May 2016. 

At that time, Smartmatic already won the contract for the lease of 23,000 OMRs. It was also about to win the deal for the lease of 70,977 vote-counting machines. 

Guanzon said: “Their refusal to participate in the bidding for the refurbishment of the existing PCOS machines is, to my mind, pushing the Commission to the edge so that it is left with no choice but to award to Smartmatic JV the Lease with Option to Purchase of the 70,977 OMR units, which it bidded for P6,286,382,682.72* ($136,170,439.67), and which it would not have preferred over the less costly refurbishment of the existing PCOS machines.”

Smartmatic: Unfair to blame us

Smartmatic, for its part, said it respects Guanzon’s opinion but begs to disagree.

“We did not push Comelec to the edge,” Smartmatic Asia Pacific president Cesar Flores said in a statement.

Flores explained: “We cannot be forced to offer services that we know to be disadvantageous to the government and would imperil the elections. If we would agree to refurbish the PCOS machines at this point in time, the delivery of the elections would be in grave danger.  It should be noted, however, that the refurbishment was still doable up until a few months ago.”

Flores pointed out that Smartmatic had proposed refurbishing the PCOS machines since 2013. He said records will prove this. He also described refurbishment “as a means for the government to save money and to maximize its investment.”

“It is unfair to pin the blame on us when the reason why the refurbishment could not have been done in time were the interminable delays caused by all the legal cases and Comelec’s own actions or inaction,” Flores said.

“The good commissioner also seems to be forgetting that it wasn’t only Smartmatic which pulled out of the refurbishment bids. Other suppliers also had their reasons from staying away from the tender,” he added.

He said this proves, too, that Smartmatic “is the only company” capable “of doing the best job of repairing its own machines.”

“We hope that this experience serves to prod the Comelec into being even more mindful of the finite nature of time vis-à-vis an immovable event such as the elections,” Flores said. (READ: PH voting machines 82% cheaper, supplier says)

'This is indeed tragic'

Still, Guanzon said in her separate opinion: “This is indeed tragic in the face of the hard fact that the Commission still is currently in possession of 81,896 PCOS machines – which were leased and then purchased from Smartmatic JV and used during both the 2010 and 2013 elections at a total cost of P9,024,759,196.57 ($195,497,216.29) – which remain unrefurbished and unmaintained.” (READ: While leasing new ones, PH to reuse old PCOS in 2019

She also pointed out that “precious time was even more put to waste” when the Comelec, under then chairman Sixto Brillantes Jr, signed a contract with Smartmatic to refurbish the old PCOS machines.

The Supreme Court (SC) nullified this contract in April because it did not undergo public bidding. Because the Comelec couldn’t use these without the needed repairs, the SC ruling rendered the machines useless.

Guanzon, the former mayor of Cadiz City, began her work at the Comelec in May, 3 months after Brillantes stepped down from office.

She explained: “If only there is enough time for the Commission, it is my opinion that the refurbishment of the existing PCOS machines is the more advantageous course to take. However, the urgency to be able to move forward with the preparations for the 2016 elections cannot be overemphasized.”

The commissioner said, “Our hands are tied, but it is not of our own making.” – Rappler.com

*$1 = P46.16

Paterno R. Esmaquel II

Paterno R. Esmaquel II, news editor of Rappler, specializes in covering religion and foreign affairs. He obtained his MA Journalism degree from Ateneo and later finished MSc Asian Studies (Religions in Plural Societies) at RSIS, Singapore. For story ideas or feedback, email him at pat.esmaquel@rappler.com.