Budget for 2010 poll automation uncertain

By ARIES RUFO, abs-cbnNEWS.com/Newsbreak

Posted at Oct 13 2008 04:44 PM | Updated as of Apr 04 2009 01:12 AM

The planned automated elections for 2010 may suffer the same fate as the botched automated polls in 2004.

Former election commissioner Mehol Sadain raised this prospect after it appeared that the budget for poll modernization has not been included in the proposed budget of the Commission on Elections for 2009.

A supplemental budget would instead be passed to finance the automation, ranging from a low of P6.5 billion to a high of P29 billion.

Commissioner Rene Sarmiento said that Budget Secretary Rolando Andaya Jr. has verbally assured that the financial requirement for the automation will be allotted through a supplemental budget, after it was not included in the 2009 regular budget.

“He made this assurance verbally to Comelec chair Jose Melo. I am 70 percent positive that Malacanang will honor its promise,” Sarmiento replied, when asked by abs-cbnnews.com/Newsbreak how sincere the Palace is in automating the 2010 national polls.

Sarmiento said Melo had lobbied for the inclusion of the budget for automation in the regular appropriation but this was politely turned down by Andaya.

Sarmiento said the inclusion of the budget for the automation in the regular appropriation would have been more preferred by Comelec since it would give them wider elbow room in preparing for the 2010 national elections.

The Comelec, during a Senate hearing, has formally asked Congress for a P21 billion supplemental budget  supposedly as recommended by the Comelec’s Advisory Council on Election Automation.

The money will be used for the lease of the Direct Recording Election voting machines, one of the two technologies used in the elections in the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao. The figure is supposed to cover the entire country.

Failure of Comelec

But Ramon Casiple, chair of the Consortium for Electoral Reform (CER), told abs-cbnnews.com/Newsbreak that the advisory council has not actually made any final recommendations yet. The CER is a member of the advisory council.

In fact, Casiple said the initial recommendation was for only 15 percent coverage for DRE while 85 percent for the Optical Media Reader which is cheaper.

The 15 percent coverage for the DRE was in consideration of the technical requirement like power supply, Casiple said.

Casiple expressed reservation on the planned lease of the DRE machines for the 2010 national polls, saying this might not be cost-effective. He said Smartmatic, which provided the DRE machines in the ARMM polls, quoted P29 billion for the purchase of machines covering the entire country.

A simple arithmetic would show that the outright purchase of the machines would be cheaper than leasing them, say, for two or three electoral exercises.

Casiple said the kink in the financial requirement for the 2010 polls was a failure of Comelec’s budget division to include it when it submitted its proposal to DBM.

What the Comelec merely submitted was its budget for normal operations for 2009, he said.

The oversight could turn out to be costly, Sadain said.

Without the automatic appropriation for automation, the Comelec would be hard pressed in preparing for modernized polls, he said.

2004 experience

He recalled Comelec’s experience in the 2004, where the poll body, in order to beat its deadline,  relaxed the rules on bidding and technical requirements for the counting machines.

The move however, proved to be fatal as the Supreme Court struck down the project at the last minute, citing irregularities in the bidding and technical requirements.

At that time, Sadain said the Comelec could not conduct bidding for the machines since the budget releases were delayed.

“We were forced against the wall that’s why the en banc decided to relax the rules (on bidding),” Sadain said.

Sadain questioned why the budget for the 2010 automation had not been included in the regular Comelec budget considering the law, RA 9369, which amended the original automation law RA 8436, has been passed last year. “The budget for automation should have been included automatically,” he said.

He hinted that Malacanang may intentionally delay the release of the funds, considering its supplemental nature, and allow a repeat of the 2004 automation snafu.