Comelec exec raises specter of return to manual polls

RG Cruz, ABS-CBN News

MANILA - The head of the Commission on Elections' (Comelec) steering committee for the 2016 elections on Tuesday raised the specter of a return to manual elections following the Supreme Court's order for the poll body to enable vote-counting machines (VCMs) to print receipts for votes.

Comelec Commissioner Christian Robert Lim was asked about the poll body's options following the decision of the Supreme Court.

Asked if the elections will still be automated, Lim said, "Kasama iyan sa issues na ite-take up namin bukas."

Asked if reverting to manual is an option, he said, "we're considering all angles."

Commissioner Arthur Lim, meanwhile, criticized the Supreme Court ruling, calling it ill-advised.

"This is a day of sadness not for the Comelec, not even for the Supreme Court, but for Philippine democracy and the rule of law. The Comelec is not an ordinary agency of government. It is a constitutional commission that has the technical expertise on election matters," he said.

Comelec Chairman Andres Bautista said the 92,509 VCMs that will be used in the elections are not configured to print receipts.

Commissioner Christian Robert Lim said the first casualty is overseas absentee voting. "Our biggest concern kasi, napapansin niyo si Commissioner (Rowena) Guanzon wala. She left because we're conducting training for the overseas (absentee voting), because they will start voting April 9. Ang problema, dala nila yung SD cards for the machines. Now, they have to come back kasi yung mga SD cards na iyun, 'di sila configured for the vote reciept."

Commissioner Arthur Lim said, "Sabihin ko lang, iyung one-month voting period, hindi iyan ginusto ng Comelec. Iyan ang mandato ng batas, so dahil dito sa development na ito, parang sinakal yung one-month period na iyun na hindi naman sana dapat dahil very highly technical matter itong dinesisyunan ng ating Korte Suprema eh."

Bautista, meanwhile said, he doesn't know how the Supreme Court decision will directly affect overseas voting. "(It's a) very important component of our elections. It deals with 1.3 million voters. We also have 53.4 million voters in the Philippines that we will need to also make sure that their voting rights are protected."

Commissioner Christian Robert Lim said around 123 VCMs were deployed for overseas absentee voting.

"What I can say only is that what the Supreme Court decided was a very highly technical matter or issue. The Comelec has already explained why the printing of the voting receipts cannot be done at least for the May 9, 2016 exercise, from the technical, practical, as well operational aspect of it, apart from delaying the voting process resulting in long queues," Commissioner Arthur Lim said.

"I understand from our technical person who is also a topnotch lawyer, Commissioner Christian Robert Lim, the effect of this on the overseas voting will be to unduly and oppressively constrict the timeline considering that under the law, voting period for overseas will already start on April 9 . Iyung lahat ng mga trainors, kasama na si Commissioner Ganzon, kasama na iyung mga DFA BEIs [Board of Election Inspectors] at mga watchers, lahat sa overseas babaguhin. Pati na yung mga technical aspects. technical features ng machine.

"With all due respect to the SC, although they are supposed to know the law, no question as to that, I have repeatedly stated during my appearance in the SC, we bow down before the majesty of the court and we will gladly obey whatever mandate or command it will issue but on a technical matter such as this, the Comelec's position as a specialized agency of government with special expertise on election matter, should have been given great weight instead of just being brushed aside as an agency which has already decided on the issue" he said.

"Ang gusto ko lang na idiin na panghuling puntong ito, sa jurisprudence natin, nakasaad na kahit ordinaryong ahensiya ng gubyerno, iyung hindi ginawa mismo sa Saligang Batas, hindi mapapakialaman ng SC ang kanilang mga desisyon bilang administrative agency kung merong suportang substantial dahil sila ang may expertise."

Arthur Lim also said, "Napakatindi po ng epekto ngayon although we still have to study, as the chairman said, but it has completely upset and turned our timelines upside down."

He ruled out disobedience on the high court's ruling. "We will never do that. We will always follow the SC decision but we are just expressing our misgivings which we have a right to do."

He also said, "This is a very difficult situation that the SC has created for the country."

Bautista said the poll body will meet with stakeholders Wednesday to study their next move.

He said their primary challenge now is getting the machines to print receipts.

"We will now have to reconfigure more than 92,500 SD cards. As you know, the voter verification feature is activated via the configuration of the VCMs. All our machines, as of this moment, have been configured not to produce a voting receipt but only allow on-screen verification."

Bautista adds other logistical concerns. "We will need to bid out additional thermal paper stock as the use of the voting receipt will certainly exhaust our current allocation."

He said the Comelec needs to retrain teachers. "We're looking at having to train more than 277,000 individual BEI members. As of today, we were almost halfway done and now it looks like we may have to call them back and retrain those that we already certified."

Asked if the poll body will appeal the decision of the high court, the Comelec chief said, "We will consider all those matters when we hold the emergency meeting tomorrow. We can provide you with a more definitive assessment of how this impacts the timeline after our meeting."

The Comelec chair hopes the high court will listen to their concerns. The poll body was unable to file a comment on the petitions at the high court in time.

Bautista is concerned that rushing preparations may affect the integrity of the elections.

Asked if the Comelec will just implement this in future elections, Bautista said, "Hindi pwede iyun because as Commissioner Lim said, we have to follow the rule of law and ginagalang natin ang Supreme Court. They have the last say as to what the law says but at the same time, dapat nila marinig kung ano ba nga iyung practical operational technical issues kasi it disrupts our timetable."

Bautista declined to categorically say if this has derailed the elections.

Asked if the source code will be changed, Christian Robert Lim said, "Hindi siya hard-coded, configurable, but we will need at least a week for testing before we start writing the CF cards."

Bautista said the decision impacts the voting time as well. "Hindi ba sinasabi natin, pag-imprenta ng resibo 13 seconds, pagbasa ng resibo anywhere from 20-40 seconds, tapos nagkaroon pa ng mga aberya minsan na-stuck iyung papel dun sa makina o kaya kailangan ire-boot yung makina, kailangan mo pang palitan yung papel pag naubusan na. Sabihin na natin one minute for every voter and because we have clustered precincts of 800 voters and we expect 75% voter turn-out...600 voters times 1 minute is 600 minutes, 600 mins is 10 hours, so magdagdag ng 10 oras sa pruseso ng pagboto ang pag imprenta ng resibo. "

The Comelec chief said adjusting voting hours is also up for discussions.

He also vowed transparency. "Kailangan may study iyan. Kailangan din iyan i-present sa publiko."

Petitioner and senatorial candidate Richard Gordon welcomed the ruling, "Democracy and transparency won today. The Supreme Court has spoken, thus, the Commission on Elections has no choice but to activate the voter-verified paper audit trail (VVPAT) feature of the vote-counting machines and protect the sanctity of the ballot."

"With the Supreme Court deciding unanimously to order the Comelec to enable the VVPAT feature, it is not only a victory for me because the high court decided in favor of my petition but it is a victory for the millions of Filipino voters because this feature will help ensure clean, honest and credible elections," he said.

UP political science Professor Ranjit Rye said, "The verification feature of the machines is a big deal. It's an accountability feature that ensures a clean and honest electoral exercise. In voting 14-0, the SC also left no doubt as to its position on the issue."