Automation of 2010 elections uncertain; Malacañang sitting on fund request

by Carmela Fonbuena,

Posted at Jan 05 2009 02:49 PM | Updated as of Jan 05 2009 10:49 PM

One month before the original deadline of the Commission on Elections (Comelec) for the funding of the 2010 automated elections, Malacanang’s budget office has yet to submit to Congress the supplemental budget for it. Assuming efforts to extend political term limits don't succeed, elections will be held in May 2010. It's one year and four months away.

Senate committee on electoral reforms chair and rumored presidential aspirant Senator Richard Gordon on Monday already expressed concerns that automation may not push through because of the delay. “Right now, it isn’t clear whether automation is possible for the 2010 elections since there is no supplemental budget yet submitted by the Comelec to Congress," Gordon said in a statement.

The supplemental budget will come from Malacanang’s budget office, the Department of Budget and Management (DBM). “It is not us. It will be the President,” Commission on Elections chair Jose Melo clarified when asked to comment.

Determined but running out of time

Melo said they have submitted to Malacanang their request for funding before Congress adjourned its session last year. Melo said he has not spoken with President Arroyo but DBM Secretary Rolando Andaya Jr. supposedly gave him assurances that they will be given the budget.

“But they haven’t submitted,” Melo lamented. (President Arroyo and Melo are family friends. They are both from Pampanga.)

“We already have a request before the DBM. We sent it last year before Congress adjourned for recess. We have been asking if they can already send
the supplemental budget. We have not failed in reiterating our request. We said we are running out of time,” Melo told

During the budget deliberations last year, Melo had made public statements the budget should be approved in February at the latest. This is to make
way for all the necessary preparations for the elections and the procurement of voting machines. But with the likely delay in the approval
of the 2009 budget, Melo on Monday said the election body is willing to adjust the timeline again.

“If the funding is not released in March, we compress everything. We cannot just say we can’t automate,” Melo added.

Congress failed to approve the 2009 General Appropriations Act before it adjourned in 2008 because of two reasons. One, the budget had to be adjusted to accommodate stimulus packages as preparation for the impact of the US-led global financial crisis. Two, the change of leadership in the Senate towards the end of the year caused a reshuffle in the committee chairmanships.

Senate President Juan Ponce Enrile used to be the Senate finance committee chair under the leadership of Senator Manuel Villar Jr. He was replaced by
Senator Edgardo Angara.

Shorter time for voters’ education

Even without the funding yet, Melo said the Comelec is moving for automation. “We have to move. We are moving. Comelec is ready,” he said.

The Comelec advisory council—which is tasked to oversee the technical aspect of the planned automated of elections—is set to start on Wednesday a
three-day seminar to finalize terms of reference.

However, delaying the budget of 2010 automated elections will mean that voters’ education—including voters’ training in using the voters’
machines—will have to suffer.

In a meeting on Monday, Melo said he had warned the Comele staff already. “We might need to adjust our timetable already. We might have to shorten
the voters’ education program,” he told them.

Redeeming the Comelec

Gordon also reiterated that Comelec should automate the 2010 elections in order “to redeem itself from waning public image.”

Public confidence in the Comelec suffered during the term of Melo’s predecessor, former Comelec chair Benjamin Abalos Sr., because of high profile election controversies including the “Hello, Garci” controversy that sparked in 2005. It was alleged that President Arroyo--with the help of then Comelec Commissioner Virgilio Garcillano--cheated to win in the 2004 presidential elections.

"The full automation of the 2010 elections is a game-changer because it will not only elevate the country's electoral exercise from third to first
world class but also erase public suspicion that the Filipino people's sacrosanct votes would be stolen from them," Gordon said in the statement.

"The automation sends a strong signal that massive cheating that often marred the country's electoral exercises would no longer be easily carried out. It would also discourage malfeasance within the Comelec," he added.

In 2008, the joint congressional committee on elections pressured the Comelec to automate the elections in the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao as a pilot-test for Comelec in operating automated elections. While the ARMM elections was lauded for the quick results, various forms of
pre-election cheating—like vote-buying—was said to have persisted.