Sunday, 1 March 2009

Special session planned for poll budget

By Roy Pelovello
With Fel V. Maragay and Arlie Calalo

PRESIDENT Arroyo will call a special session of Congress if necessary to ensure the P11.3-billion supplemental budget to automate the 2010 elections is passed on time, Malacañang said yesterday.

“The Palace is for full automation of the elections,” Press Secretary Cerge Remonde told reporters.

“I hope our lawmakers will cooperate toward achieving that goal.”

The Palace statement came as Congress debated how best to automate the 2010 elections amid the Commission on Elections’ concern that time is running out.

The House passed the supplemental budget on second reading but made it conditional on a new law governing the automation. Most congressmen support a hybrid system that would automate only the election of national candidates—the president, vice president and senators—and leave the selection of local officials under a manual system.

Testifying at the Senate, Comelec Chairman Jose Melo warned that this approach would cost the country P5 billion more and still be susceptible to cheating.

But former Comelec commissioner Christian Monsod disputed the view that the law forbids a hybrid election system and said it gave the Comelec the discretion whether to fully or partially automate the elections.

In a radio interview, Monsod said he favored retaining the manual process at the polling precinct level but automating the canvassing of votes at the municipal, provincial and national levels.

“Large-scale cheating occurs not at the precinct level when watchers of candidates and political parties are there to monitor the voting and counting of votes. It occurs during the canvassing of votes. Therefore, it is the canvassing process that should be automated,” he said.

Monsod said people accepted “95 percent” of the election results because they witnessed the counting at the municipal level.

He said what was important were the printed copies of the official ballots, election returns and other election documents at the precinct level, and because the Omnibus Election Code required Comelec to provide administration and opposition parties with authenticated duplicate copies of election returns.

Monsod said he was relieved that the Comelec had discarded the Direct Recording Electronic system because it did not provide a paper trail of the voting results.

The Comelec has instead opted to use the less expensive Optical Mark Reader-type voting machines that use paper ballots. The machines are also capable of producing “electronically generated” election returns.

Monsod said the use of OMR machines would cost the government only P4 billion—much lower than the P11.3 billion that had been earmarked for automation.

“Why are we going to spend P11.3 billion when we can address the real problem with only P4 billion?” Monsod said.

Senator Loren Legarda said whether there was a complete or partial automation of the 2010 elections, the overriding concern was preventing fraud.

“The fear with automated poll is that cheating through it can be done at the push of a computer button. The expressed concern of many of our countrymen is that a crooked administration can more readily cheat using the automated system,” she said.

Senator Pia Cayetano supported Melo’s stand against the hybrid voting system.

“A hybrid system will complicate and further confuse the voting and counting process, which will only serve the purposes of poll cheats. It will only open opportunities for fraud operators,” she said.

Cayetano said the proposal would also be more tedious and expensive because the Comelec would have to provide two sets of ballots and ballot boxes for all precincts.

Also yesterday, Metro Manila poll officers rejected the House proposal for a hybrid system.

Parañaque City Election Officer Cea Maganduga said election officials believed automation was long overdue. Delays would frustrate people’s desire for clean and orderly elections.

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