MANILA, Philippines - The Commission on Elections (Comelec) will have to return to manual counting of ballots in the midterm elections next year if the Supreme Court fails to immediately resolve the petitions filed against the poll body's purchase of Smartmatic-Total Information Management's (TIM) precinct count optical scan (PCOS) machines.
Comelec Chairman Sixto Brillantes Jr. aired the warning Tuesday in response to the petitions filed by several groups seeking to nullify the Smartmatic deal for the 2013 polls.
"All we are asking for is this, let the Supreme Court decide it immediately. If they will take time to resolve this issue, baka mapilitan tayong bumalik sa manual," Brillantes told ANC Top Story.
He explained that there may not be enough time if the Supreme Court rules that the Comelec sets a public bidding for the automation of the 2013 elections.
"We are going to use about 80,000 voting machines. The 80,000, I don't think they [winning bidder] will have enough time to manufacture brand new ones," Brillantes said.
"If we go bidding, we have to start by early May or late April. It could take some time because the many requirements," he added. "Then the winning bidder will have to start manufacturing. This is 80,000. This is not easy to do."
Back to 'Stone Age'
Brillantes described manual counting of ballots as a move "back to the Stone Age."
"I've always said that if we go back to manual counting, that would be going back to the Stone Age. We have already moved into the modern age of automation. There is no reason for us to go back to manual," he said.
"The only time we can go back to manual counting, under the current law Republic Aact 9369, is when all options for automation are exhausted," he added.
"If the Supreme Court delays the resolution, and by the time it comes out with a resolution against us, there will be no time to purchase new machines," he said. "That will be the problem, and we will be forced to go back to manual."
The petitions against the Comelec-Smartmatic deal for the purchase of the PCOS machines were filed by the Solidarity for Sovereignty and another group led by Davao City Archbishop Fernando Capalla.
The petitions seek the immediate issuance of a temporary restraining order on purchase of the PCOS machines last March 30, as well as the contract's nullification.
The petitioners argued that the Comelec's purchase of the machines for P1.8 billion pesos is "illegal and unlawful," saying it should have undergone public bidding.
The groups also cited alleged "glitches" when the Smartmatic-TIM machines were used during the 2010 elections.
Brillantes sees the petitions as a "purely legal issue."
"We want the Supreme Court to settle immediately the issue. This is purely a legal issue. If it can be settled immediately, if the Supreme Court will say it is legal, then we can proceed smoothly. If they say it is not legal, then we will have enough time, [and] if they will resolve it in one months' time, then we will have to go into a public bidding," he said.
"These moves are welcome. Welcome sa amin ito so we can settle the issue of the legal option to purchase," he added. "We still believe that our action is legal. If the Supreme court says otherwise, we will abide by the Supreme Court decision."
Brillantes defends Smartmatic deal, PCOS machines
The Comelec chief also came to the defense of the Smartmatic-TIM deal, as well as the PCOs machines.
"Very very low iyung price nila, iyung PCOS Smartmatic eh. If we go into public pudding, it will be very difficult to get brand new [machines], aside from the timeline that would be needed for a public bidding," he said.
He added that the PCOS machines' price is the same as during the 2010 polls.
"We have already paid 70% of these machines. We are just paying the remaining 30%," he said. "I don't think anybody can compete with the [bulk] price of P1.8 billion. Brand new is about P4 billion."
"The machines of Smartmatic are already there. We inspected them initially. We are going to make a final inspection and check whether they are actually usable and well-maintained," Brillantes said. "I have seen them already. All are well-maintained. Very few lang ang nasira, which they are going to repair."
He said Comelec decided not to go into public bidding for the automated 2013 elections because the poll body only exercised its option to purchase the PCOs machines.
"All the benefits are with us. Very low [price], well-maintained. Why will you have to go into a public bidding if we still have that option to purchase?" he said.
"That is our argument. We debated this for 2 to 3 meetings in the commision en banc until we finally decided that we take the risk of actuially going into the excercise of the option to purchase and let the people question it before the Supreme Court," he added.
He also downplayed alleged glitches experienced by the PCOS machines during the 2010 elections.
"If there were such major glitches in 2010, then there would have been no elections and the results would have been questioned up to now," he said, adding that the only pending protest from 2010 polls is the vice-presidential race.
Onus on SC
Brillantes said the onus is now on the high court to immediately resolve the petitions.
"This is the status now. All that we are asking is the Supreme Court should not take time. We hope the SC will resolve it before the end of June," he said, explaining that the Comelec has to pay Smartmatic by that time.
"If the SC issues a TRO based on the petitions without us having been given the right to comment, then what will happen is that we stop everything. Everything will be suspended. We cannot act, we cannot do the inspection, check on the maintainatnce, we cannot check the machines until the Supreme Court resolves the case," he added.
"We are actually pleading with the Supreme Court that they immediately require uis to answer and we shall be ready to respond immediately," Brillantes said. "I think the solicitor general would be well-prepared." - with a report from ANC