Start electoral reforms now

DURING HIS six years in office, President Aquino will not—in the normal course—have the opportunity to overhaul the composition of the Supreme Court and to change judicial mindsets. He would be able to name only four of the 15 high court magistrates, not enough to sway a new judicial philosophy and direction.

New Comelec. However, he can initiate electoral reforms via a sweeping revamp in the composition of the Commission on Elections. With the resignation of Chairman Jose A. R. Melo effective at the end of this month and the scheduled retirement this February of two commissioners (Nicodemo Ferrer and Gregorio Larrazabal), P-Noy can appoint immediately three of the seven Comelec members, including the pivotal chairman. In February 2013, two more vacancies will occur; thus, enabling him to name five appointees who would clearly dominate the poll body.

True, many problems attended the automation of the last elections but, in the end, the PCOS-aided exercise was held in relative peace and order. Despite lingering questions about the accuracy of the count and the possibility of fraud, the electoral results especially of the presidential contest were accepted by our people. Significantly however, more electoral protests were filed by defeated candidates in the last automated derby than in the previous manual elections.

As the New Year dawns, we are reminded that the next general elections will be held in May 2013. This early, the Comelec must start preparations to forestall the nerve-wracking missteps, delays and pitfalls that characterized the 2010 exercise, like the compact flash cards fiasco just a week before election day.

Three Comelec challenges. The new Comelec’s first major challenge is to determine whether the next election should be automated. Should the country continue with automation? The advantage of speed will have to be weighed against the humongous expense and difficulties of automation. While Congress has the power to revise the automated election law, Comelec’s inputs on whether we should continue with automation would be most persuasive.

In a much-applauded address a few weeks ago, former Comelec Chairman Christian Monsod raised these concerns with regard to the last automated election: (1) the constitutionality of the non-transparent and secretive manner by which the PCOS machines counted the ballots inside its little-understood innards beyond the scrutiny of the public; (2) the very expensive (P16.5 billion) PCOS system of automation did not address the traditional problems of election cheating, command votes, disenfranchisement of voters and low registration rate; and (3) should the Comelec be able to address these traditional problems, the country may not need an expensive automation system.

The second major challenge that Comelec must face is: Assuming our Supreme Court declares automation constitutional, what system of automation should we adopt? Monsod unequivocally trashed the PCOS system, saying “our automation was mass-produced in one step, was not really pilot-tested satisfactorily and was provided by a supplier who had no extensive experience in the technology and seemed to be also learning while it was being implemented.”

Lente, the election watchdog, was even more scathing: “The new technology greatly facilitated the counting and canvassing. However, peaceful and expedient elections did not translate to honest and credible elections. Although the automated system has seemingly eliminated the practice of wholesale cheating… election offenses like threats, intimidation, unlawful electioneering and most especially vote-buying were proven to be most prevalent.”

Even the Comelec Advisory Council (CAC) was not convinced, saying “Comelec is better off not exercising the option to purchase the PCOS machines, so it can look for an even better solution for the 2013 elections.”

Barely enough time. The third major challenge is time. The May 2013 election is just two and half years from now. If, as the CAC and the election watchdogs recommend, the PCOS system should be jettisoned, then Comelec is really pressed for time in starting anew with a new system.

Remember that retired Justice Jose A. R. Melo took over the Commission on March 25, 2008, a little over two years prior to the May 10, 2010 elections. Assuming P-Noy names his replacement in February, the new chair will have about the same time as Melo had in preparing for the next general election to be held in May 2013.

Commendably, Comelec had a strict, step-by-step timetable to prepare for the 2010 elections. But it was almost always tardy in its actual implementation. There were horrifying delays in the printing of the ballots, delivery and calibration of the PCOS machines, screening of candidates, etc.

There was of course the big constitutional hurdle that ended only on Sept. 10, 2009, just nine months before Election Day, when in Roque v. Comelec, the Supreme Court upheld the automation contract signed between the poll body and Smartmatic. That decision put to rest the legal questions, but not the technical, administrative and logistical issues that hounded the Comelec throughout the election season.

Bottom line: Only two years and a few months remain till the next elections. That is barely enough to prepare. Everyone interested in honest, orderly and peaceful elections from President Aquino, Congress and Comelec to the electoral watchdogs should now carefully plan for the 2013 elections.

 

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