PPCRV to Comelec: 'Bite bullet,' lease more Smartmatic machines

MANILA, Philippines – An election watchdog urged the Commission on Elections (Comelec) on Thursday, August 6, to approve the lease of 70,000 vote-counting machines from controversial technology provider Smartmatic for the 2016 elections.

In a congressional hearing, Parish Pastoral Council for Responsible Voting (PPCRV) legal counsel Howard Calleja said the Comelec should award to Smartmatic the contract for the lease of 70,977 optical mark readers (OMRs).

OMR is the generic name for the precinct count optical scan (PCOS) machines that the Philippines used in the 2010 and 2013 elections. 

"May we request the Comelec to just go ahead, bite the bullet, your honors, if I may say so, and award it accordingly," Calleja said.

Comelec Chairman Andres Bautista later told reporters the Comelec will consider the PPCRV's recommendation. 

The joint congressional oversight committee on the automated election system conducted a hearing at the Senate on Thursday.

Earlier, the Comelec bids and awards committee already recommended awarding the contract to Smartmatic. Bautista said the Comelec en banc has not approved this recommendation.

The chairman explained that the Comelec is weighing another option: the possible refurbishment of 81,896 PCOS machines used in previous elections.

Two biddings for PCOS refurbishment already failed. Because of this, if the Comelec pushes through with refurbishment, the poll body's next option is to directly negotiate with a specific company.

Knowing these two options, Calleja pointed out that the PPCRV was "at first...for the refurbishment."

"But at this point in time, I think what should be more important is the credibility of the 2016 elections. And with whatever is happening now, we think that since there's already a qualified bidder, a qualified winner actually...let us go ahead with that and prepare for the 2016 elections," Calleja said.

Bautista earlier said further delays could affect the credibility of the 2016 elections. (READ: Comelec fails to meet poll automation target

In Thursday's hearing, Calleja added: "We have been present in all of the biddings of Comelec, and we just like to manifest to this body that we congratulate the Comelec because all the biddings...were competitive, fair, and transparent."

What to do with old PCOS?

Senator Aquilino Pimentel III, chairman of the joint congressional oversight committee on the automated election system, said the Comelec faces another question if it decides to lease 70,000 PCOS machines.

What will the Comelec do, Pimentel said, with the 82,000 PCOS machines that the Comelec already bought from Smartmatic in 2012? 

The Comelec could not reuse these machines without refurbishing these. Unfortunately for the Comelec, the Supreme Court in April nullified a newly signed contract for PCOS refurbishment because it didn't undergo public bidding. 

Pimentel told reporters: "Nasasayangan ako doon sa luma. Binili na natin 'yung 80,000, kaya sabi ko sa Comelec, kung hindi na kayo masyadong pressed for time, sagutin n'yo ang tanong ko: What will we do with the 80,000 na binili na natin?"

(I feel the old ones would be a waste. We already bought the 80,000, so I told the Comelec, when you're no longer pressed for time, answer my question: What will we do with the 80,000 that we already bought?)

Bautista said it is "a fair comment" to ask what the Comelec will do with the existing 82,000 PCOS machines.

The Comelec chairman assured Congress that, in any case, the Comelec for now is "just leasing" additional voting machines. There "is still no plan at all to exercise any option to purchase" these OMRs.

The Philippines used Smartmatic's PCOS machines in its first and second automated elections, including the 2010 polls that elected President Benigno Aquino III. The 2016 elections will elect Aquino's successor.

While the Philippines is bent on using the same PCOS technology, however, the Comelec faces at least 3 potential obstacles.

Election watchdogs have filed 3 separate petitions before the Supreme Court against the Comelec's last-ditch effort to ensure automated elections. (READ: Poll automation faces 3rd Supreme Court petition) – Rappler.com 

Paterno R. Esmaquel II

Paterno R. Esmaquel II is a senior reporter leading Rappler’s coverage of religion and foreign affairs. He finished MA Journalism in Ateneo and 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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