With P15.5B budget cut, Comelec needs P8B for more VCMs, faster 2022 polls

Mike Navallo, ABS-CBN News

Posted at Sep 15 2021 08:30 PM | Updated as of Sep 16 2021 10:08 AM

A technician checks a malfunctioning vote-counting machine at the Tomas Morato Elementary School in Quezon City, May 13, 2019.
A technician checks a malfunctioning vote-counting machine at the Tomas Morato Elementary School in Quezon City, May 13, 2019. Fernando G. Sepe Jr., ABS-CBN News

MANILA — The Commission on Elections (Comelec) will need P8 billion for additional vote counting machines (VCMs) if it were to speed up the voting process during the May 2022 polls, amid concerns health protocols will cause considerable delay.

Comelec steering committee head Commissioner Marlon Casquejo told the joint congressional oversight committee on the automated election system Tuesday, 20,000 VCMs are needed to bring down the voter to VCM ratio to 600 voters per machine, as some legislators suggested.

“Kapag 600, we need additional 20,000. So because the 10,000 is roughly P1 billion, so another P1 billion plus additional manpower for the clustered precincts and electoral boards… As computed by our finance department, we need at least additional of P8 billion, I guess,” he said.

At present, Comelec has more than 97,000 VCMs which are being refurbished for next year’s polls.

But with 61 million registered voters, this would mean about 1,000 voters lining up for every machine.

The poll body tried to lease 10,000 additional VCMs to at least bring the ratio to 800 voters per machine, but the bidding failed because the sole bidder found the budget of P600 million too low.

Comelec is now considering increasing the budget for the contract, despite facing a steep cut in its proposed budget next year.

The poll body proposed P41.993 billion for its 2022 budget but the Department of Budget and Management slashed it to P26.498 billion or a cut of P15.5 billion despite 2022 being an election year.

In comparison, DBM is proposing P28 billion for anti-insurgency body National Task Force to End Local Communist Armed Conflict.

The possible cut will affect the lease of additional VCMS.

Casquejo said that during budget deliberations, they were given P500 million for additional VCMs but this is still not enough and the poll body will have to use its savings to finance the difference.

‘KA-HALAGA LANG NG FACE SHIELD’

Casquejo’s estimate of P8 billion for additional 20,000 VCMs was met with support by members of the oversight committee.

“So Madam Chair, P8 billion. Maybe the committee can help the Comelec…Maliit lang na halaga yun para sa safety ng mga voters, para sa mas maayos na eleksyon. Ka-halaga lang yun ng face shield, P8 billion,” Caloocan Rep. Edgar Erice said, eliciting laughter from committee co-chair Senator Imee Marcos.

Erice was alluding to the P8.7 billion worth of government contracts for the supply of medical supplies bagged by Pharmally, a pharmaceutical company, that is now the subject of a Senate probe. Among the allegations are allegedly overpriced face shields.

Sen. Risa Hontiveros noted Casquejo’s estimate and vowed to include it in Comelec’s budget that she is sponsoring before the Senate.

ONLY 1-DAY ELECTION BUT WITH POSSIBLE EXTENDED HOURS

Another solution Comelec is looking at is extending the period for casting of votes.

The Comelec had earlier rejected the idea first broached by vaccine czar Carlito Galvez, Jr. of a multi-day elections or holding the polls over a span of 2 days or more, citing risks and more costs to pay for the honoraria of teachers and other election personnel.

Casquejo repeated this on Tuesday’s hearing, also ruling out holding elections in different areas on different dates as “unconstitutional.”

The 1987 Constitution requires holding of national elections on one day — the second Monday of May.

What is certain, Casquejo said, is that voting hours will be extended but that, too, will pose some challenges because of the cut to the proposed budget.

“Baka magkarooon tayo ng 5-hour extension tapos hindi natin mabigyan ng additional honorarium o additional personnel ang ating voting centers. Isa yan sa tinitingnan namin kaya nga lang we are still dependent on the budget given to us,” he said.

Comelec executive director Bartolome Sinocruz, Jr. however said that while they are not looking at a 2-day elections, voting could extend “up to 24 hours or even the next day.”

The poll body is set to hold a time and motion study on Sunday, September 19, to simulate how long voting would take under the “new normal.”

NO EXTENSION FOR REGISTRATION PERIOD

Amid repeated appeals from legislators to extend the registration period which is set to end on September 30, Casquejo reiterated the Comelec en banc’s position there will be no extension.

“Mahirap na po magkaroon ng extension because there are many preparations na maaapektuhan. We cannot compromise those preparations,” he said.

Among the activities the poll body is set to undertake in the coming weeks are the local source code review which will involve stakeholders who will review the software that will be used for the May 2022 polls and the opening of the bid for an international certification entity that will evaluate the hardware and software of the automated election system.

It will also hold field testing and mock elections later in the year.

Pressed by Marcos why previous registration periods ended in October while this year’s registration period will end a month earlier, Casquejo said poll commissioners will again discuss the issue.

An estimated 12 million qualified voters have yet to register for next year’s elections.

Comelec recently reopened registration even in areas under MECQ.

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