Help Comelec anyway

MANILA, Philippines–With only 71 days before election day, a reversion to full manual count is no longer doable. Sad to admit but, at this point, there is simply no more time to shift from automated to full manual balloting. To save our democracy, I can only hope that despite the many pitfalls besetting its automation program, the Commission on Elections can still satisfactorily conduct the May 10 automated polls and thereby enable Congress to proclaim the presidential winner on time.

No viable alternative. Like most people, I want our super slow and fraud-prone election system automated. Last year, I meticulously studied the Comelec-approved PCOS system; conversed with several Comelec officials who, to be fair, tried their best to explain the labyrinths of the program; and supported their implementation plans. However, due to unnerving delays in its already tight timetable, untested logistical nightmares and spotty preparations, Comelec—in my view—has run out of time to perfect its automation project.

Even more regrettable is Comelec’s failure to provide and explain viable alternatives to obviate a failed election for the presidency and other national offices. I am not referring to a nationwide failure of election (no-el), which—the commission repeatedly insists—will not happen. I refer to automation problems occurring on a much smaller scale, say 10 percent of the country, but which would result in a failure to proclaim (no-proc) a winner in a tightly contested presidential election.

To stress, if the margin of the leading presidential candidate over the second placer is less than the number of uncounted ballots, there would be no proc for president. Under the law, when the uncounted ballots are more than the margin of the leading candidate, no one could be legally proclaimed winner.

That is why on Jan. 24, I reluctantly proposed in this space that Comelec should abandon automation and prepare for manual election. But my proposal was not heeded. Now, with only 71 days remaining, Comelec—even if it wants to—no longer has enough time to manualize the election.

As the writer of the Supreme Court decision that nullified the automation of the 2004 election (Information Technology Foundation vs. Comelec), I know that the poll body needs at least 90 days to prepare for a full manual election. That is why the Court promulgated its decision on Jan. 13, 2004 to give Comelec four months to shift to manual the May 10, 2004 election. Now, even if it wants to, Comelec has run out of time to shift the coming polls to the full manual mode.

Coping with automation failures. How can we cope with the looming danger of a presidential no-proc? I say, let us help Comelec anyway so the anticipated pitfalls could be reduced to a minimum. Here are four specific suggestions on what citizens can do:

First, those contracted to help the poll body should comply with their respective mandates faithfully. For instance, the carrier hired (which, at this point, has not been chosen yet) to deliver the election paraphernalia should be tech savvy and logistically ready. Its job is difficult, time-sensitive and complicated.

It must deliver—within three days before the election—the printed ballots and the specially calibrated PCOS machine to the right precinct. Each of the 50 million ballots (assuming they have been correctly printed) and each of the 82,200 PCOS machines must be delivered on time to the correct precinct (not just to the correct town) under the care of the correct poll officer (a public school teacher). Otherwise, if the wrong ballots are delivered, the machine cannot read them. The ballots are bar coded to be read only by the PCOS machine specially calibrated for that specific precinct.

Second, the poll watchdogs (PPCRV, Namfrel, Nassa, Lente, etc.) should be extra vigilant in performing their roles. They should carefully monitor every election event and undertake parallel programs to safeguard the polls from further delays and glitches. For instance, random manual audit of the election results should be diligently performed.

Another example, PPCRV’s voter education program should be intensified. So too, election watchdogs, like Namfrel, should undertake a parallel manual count—even on a delayed basis—to have an independent and credible verification of the automated count. In this way, hi-tech “Garcis” could be unmasked and prevented from manipulating the polls.

Third, pray that the margin of victory of the winning presidential candidate would be overwhelming, say 15 percent (six million votes) over the second placer. In this way, failure of election (no-el)—in say 10 percent of the country—would not result in a presidential no-proc. The closer the margin between the two leading presidential candidates is, the more likely a failure of proclamation would be. Conversely, the larger the gap is, the less likely a no-proc would happen.

Fourth, be ready for the consequences of a failed election. In my Jan. 31 and Feb. 7 columns, I wrote about President Macapagal-Arroyo becoming holdover president, acting president, and thereafter, prime minister. Our citizens may resist this script and thereby ignite people power. Worse, military adventurers may seize the reins of government using the constitutional policy that the “Armed Forces of the Philippines is the protector of the people and the State.” Under this scenario, legal niceties will be ignored. For “when guns speak, laws are silent.” And the economy collapses.

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