Saturday, 28 February 2009

Philippine Lower House blocking fully automated elections

Hybrid elections prone to fraud, cost P5b more
By Fel V. Maragay
With Roy Pelovello and Arlie Calalo
The Manila Standard

POLL officials yesterday warned that the hybrid automation system backed by the House of Representatives would cost the country P5 billion more in the 2010 elections, yet would still be prone to cheating.

Testifying before the Senate finance committee, Commission on Elections Chairman Jose Melo said the House passed the P11.3-billion supplemental budget for poll automation, but made its release conditional on the passage of a new law governing the 2010 elections.

Melo said most congressmen favored a hybrid system in which only the election of national officials—the president, vice president and senators—would be automated. That would leave the election of local officials, including congressmen, under a manual voting system.

But Melo said such a system would actually incur more costs, such as those needed for separate ballot boxes for the automated and manual systems.

The manual system of voting and counting that the House favors for local officials would still be susceptible to cheating, he said.

But Senator Richard Gordon, principal author of the Automated Elections Law, said the manual process was not allowed. In fact, he said, the law prescribes full automation for both national and local polls in 2010.

The law provides that from the polling precincts, ballots will be brought to the municipality or city and then to the provincial and finally national levels.

The ballot boxes could be opened and the votes counted manually in case of protests, Gordon said.

Senator Edgardo Angara, chairman of the finance committee, said that Speaker Prospero Nograles had told him that the primary concern of the congressmen was that they would not have a record of the voting results at the precinct level.

“If they have something to hold on to—the results by precincts, a paper trail, a printout from each precinct—then all their fears about automation will disappear,” he said.

Majority Leader Juan Miguel Zubiri rejected the House proposal for manual voting and counting for local officials.

“Let us remove the cloud of doubt over our electoral process by computerizing both the national and local elections without exception. We have seen in the past how the manual system has been taken advantage of by unscrupulous elements to commit fraud,” Zubiri said.

In a previous hearing, the Comelec recommended the full use of the Precinct Count Optical Scan or PCOS, dropping its earlier proposal for the Direct Recording Electronic since it is too expensive.

But the senators suggested that the Comelec look into leasing instead of buying the electronic voting machines to save on costs.

Angara said his committee would recommend immediate passage of the Pll.3-billion supplemental budget without imposing any condition. But he said the Senate could not pass its version of the measure unless it was first approved on third and final reading by the House, where all appropriations bills emanate.

If the House failed to approve the bill next week, then the Senate would have to wait until April l2 to act on it because Congress would go on a month-long recess starting March 7.

Zubiri said Congress should speed up approval of the supplemental budget for automated polls to enable the Comelec to bid out the project according to its timetable. He said he would push for the holding of a special session of Congress if necessary during the month-long break.

Melo warned that if Congress took too long to debate the hybrid system favored by the House, the Comelec would run out of time and would have go back to an entirely manual system for the 2010 elections.

Also yesterday, the Palace called on Congress to speed up the passage of the supplemental budget.

“It is the wish of the President to have automated polls. That is one of her promises, one of the top 10 agenda of the President when she assumed office,” said Anthony Golez, a Palace spokesman.

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