Friday, 7 May 2010

A photo finish for Comelec on automated elections

Threat from enemies of state confirmed; power supply assured
Teachers may be able to vote after all
Ana Mae G. Roa, Gerard S. dela Peña and Jose Bimbo F. Santos

PREPARATIONS FOR the country’s first automated national elections may reach until the polling day itself as the Commission on Elections (Comelec) yesterday said automated counting of votes may be delayed in some areas but casting of votes would proceed as scheduled.

As this developed, Executive Secretary Leandro R. Mendoza told reporters at the sidelines of a forum on transport sector yesterday in Port Area, Manila that Philippine National Police (PNP) and the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) have been placed on red alert as early as a week ahead of Monday’s polls due to threats to disrupt the elections.

At the Department of Energy, Secretary Jose C. Ibazeta, ensuring a brownout-free election period, said in a press conference: "We have enough [power], and we’re also confident, based on their (National Grid Corporation of the Philippines) forecasts and planning, it will cover any eventualities."

At the Comelec, meanwhile, Chairman Jose A. R. Melo said in a briefing that poll technology provider Smartmatic-Total Information Management Corp. (Smartmatic-TIM) would have tested 95% of the 76,340 new compact flash (CF) cards by Saturday and, in a worst-case, the remaining 5% may be dispatched to some polling precincts only on election day itself or a day after due to security and logistics issues.

This worst-case scenario, he added, would mean delayed counting in 5% of the total polling centers covering around 3.2 million votes.

Mr. Melo identified precincts in the provinces of Lanao del Sur and Lanao del Norte as among those that could experience delay in the arrival of the new CF cards. The two Mindanao provinces are being monitored by security authorities due to the presence of Moro rebels. The election controversy in 2004 involving President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo and a poll official mainly involved votes coming from nearby Maguindanao provinces.

"We are trying to get [the help of the military] to these places for more security. They are not that remote areas but there’s danger along the way," Mr. Melo said.

Asked if this could affect canvassing results, he added: "Probably not."

An error in the configuration of the CF card was detected during Monday’s testing and sealing of over 10,000 precinct count optical scan (PCOS) machines. The CF card contains instructions on how to read the ballots and stores voting data.

"This [loading and testing of CF cards] may be done on the day of the elections itself just in case there will still be precincts, remote areas, without the CF cards having been tested and not arriving on time," Mr. Melo said.

The 7 a.m.-6 p.m. polling time would proceed in precincts with PCOS units having no CF cards, with the ballots cast to be temporarily secured in the official ballot box. When the new CF cards have arrived and have been tested, the board of election inspectors would then feed the ballots into the machine.

In the same briefing, Cesar Flores, Smartmatic-TIM president for Southeast Asia, said 35,000 CF cards have been configured as of yesterday, with those designated for the provinces of Antique, Bohol, Capiz, Guimaras, Abra, Batanes and Quirino and the cities of Makati, Parañaque and Marikina have been dispatched.

The Comelec and board of election inspectors yesterday successfully tested PCOS machines in schools in Metro Manila, especially in Makati and Parañaque cities from where the problems were first discovered.

The glitch was traced to the wrong configuration of the machines that failed to correctly read the names of local candidates.

As this developed, aspiring president Eduardo C. Villanueva of Bangon Pilipinas yesterday asked the Comelec to postpone the polls if a random testing of 500 PCOS machines would not be conducted by today.

"We are asking Comelec to assure the public that it [can] assure the integrity, smooth performance and legal requisites of the automated elections by doing more random tests. If after the tests, it still encounters problems, then we are asking Comelec to consider the postponement of Monday’s elections to May 24," Mr. Villanueva said in a statement.

Another candidate, Nicanor Jesus P. Perlas, an independent, last month also asked Comelec to postpone the elections until technical and legal issued have been settled.

Sought for comment, Mr. Melo said: "Probably, they want more time to campaign."

The Constitution has set the second Monday of May as the date of the general elections.

Threat to elections

In Malacañang, security officials have confirmed that so-called enemies of the state composed of separatist and rebel groups are plotting to disrupt the elections.

This prompted President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo to convene the National Security Council’s (NSC) Cabinet cluster in an emergency meeting yesterday.

A similar meeting was also held on Wednesday afternoon, with the goal of creating measures to ensure clean and honest elections amid threats from the New People’s Army (NPA) and rogue elements of Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF).

"[The NSC met on Wednesday to discuss] the preparations of the institutions for the coming elections. We discussed threats that the government is facing coming from the enemies of the state -- NPA, MILF and MNLF," said Mr. Mendoza.

"These groups have plans that the AFP and PNP are currently addressing," he said, without giving details.

Power situation

In detailing the power situation during the election period, Jesusito H. Sulit, National Grid Corporation of the Philippines (NGCP) senior adviser to the president, said in a briefing that their reserve forecasts on election day is 1,200 megawatts (MW) for Luzon, 300 MW for Visayas and 100 MW for Mindanao.

Mr. Ibazeta admitted in the same briefing that the reserve level in Mindanao "is pretty tight."
Carlito C. Claudio, NGCP deputy assistant and chief technical officer, said the reserve levels in Luzon and Visayas are enough to cover a breakdown of each of the grid’s single largest generating unit -- 647 MW for Luzon and 72 MW for Visayas, but not for Mindanao, which is 105 MW with the grid on "yellow alert" as of last Monday.

Mindanao, which has been experiencing brownouts due to insufficient generating capacity brought about by low elevation at the grid’s hydroelectric plants, will have reserves on Monday due to de-loading and additional capacity in the grid.

From 1,200 MW in average demand, Mr. Claudio said this is expected to go down to 1,100 MW on Monday being a holiday and the de-loading of large commercial users in the grid.

From 800 MW in average generating capacity, this is expected to increase to 1,200 MW through additional capacity from 727-MW Agus plant, which has been building up water supply recently, and 7 MW from Crystal Sugar Co. Inc., 40 MW from Iligan Diesel Power Plant, and 5 MW from Salcon Power.

"The industries will be cut off, any commercial establishment will be de-loaded and priority will be given to the polling centers," Mr. Ibazeta said.

He said they have also coordinated with the AFP and PNP for the security of energy installations.

Absentee voting

As this developed, the Department of Education said it would ask the Comelec’s confirmation to allow over 100,000 teachers to vote in their assigned polling places.

Acting Education Secretary Mona D. Valisno told Palace reporters that the names of teachers -- almost half of the 229,000 who will act as board of election inspectors on May 10 -- were deactivated for failing to vote for two consecutive elections.

"These teachers should not be punished for doing their jobs," she said.

Ms. Valisno said Comelec officials have favorably responded to the department’s request, adding she would ask for confirmation from the Comelec today.

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