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Comelec on election woes: Hands tied due to procurement law

MANILA, Philippines – The Commission on Elections (Comelec) said it encountered problems in this year's polls because its hands were tied by the procurement law limiting its choice of suppliers of markers, SD cards, and other paraphernalia.

Comelec Chairman Sheriff Abas offered this explanation after he was asked in a press conference on Tuesday, May 14, about a host of problems encountered by the poll body – from 1.02 million bleeding markers, to 961 defective vote-counting machines (VCMs), and 1,665 malfunctioning SD cards.

Abas said these VCMs and election paraphernalia suffered a mismatch.

Abas said the difference of the 2019 and the 2016 elections is that in 2016, the bidding of election materials was "bundled." 

This means there was only one supplier of vote-counting machines, marking pens, paper, and SD cards – that was technology provider Smartmatic. 

Abas said that after the 2016 elections, the Comelec requested budget from the Department of Budget and Management, and the DBM said the Comelec can exercise its option to purchase (OTP). This was why the Comelec managed to buy the machines from 2016.

"Ang problema sa OTP is unbundled 'yung ibang component, so iba ang supplier ng makina, iba ang supplier ng SD cards, iba rin suppliers ng papel at marking pen," Abas said. (The problem with OTP is that the other components were unbundled, so there was a different supplier of machines, different supplier of SD cards, and different suppliers of paper and marking pens.) 

"So doon 'yung naktia naming problem, hindi masyadong nagma-match," Abas said. "May problema kami sa marking pen, may problema kami sa papel, may problema rin kami sa SD cards." (So that's the problem we saw – it didn't match. We had a problem with marking pens, we had a problem with paper, we had a problem with SD cards.)

The Comelec chairman said the poll body, however, cannot do anything about this, "because that's part of the procurement law. "Hindi puwede bu-bundle mo na lang 'yun na gano'n gano'n lang so nag-procure kami lahat no'n at dumaan sa procurement law," he said. (You cannot bundle these things just like that, so we procured all of those and went through the procurement law.)

He said Smartmatic, in fact, made a bid to supply SD cards, but lost because the cost of their bid was around P70 million. The supplier that won the bidding, on the other hand, had a bid worth P29 million.

"Kahit gusto namin Smartmatic 'yung SD card, under the procurement law, doon ka sa lowest bidder," Abas said. (Even if we wanted Smartmatic SD cards, under the procurement law, we had to choose the lowest bidder.)

Comelec Commissioner Rowena Guanzon, a former commissioner of the Commission on Audit, then commented that the "lowest bidder rule" is not always good.

She suspects that during the bidding process, the supplier presented high-quality SD cards, but the supplier cut its costs and provided "cheap" SD cards because it offered the lowest bid anyway.

Saying this was her personal opinion, Guanzon remarked: "So sa mga madlang people po, lagi 'nyo kaming sinisingil sa Comelec na ang laki-laki ng gastos namin. Ayan, lowest bidder, cheap din."

(So to the public, you always ask Comelec about our huge expenses. There, it's the lowest bidder, so it's cheap.) – Rappler.com

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.

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