Special Issue
The Queen's Gambits

Sins of the Commission

THE COMMISSION on Elections has a lot to account for, with some of its “mistakes” running into billions of taxpayers’ pesos. Ironically, some of its costliest errors had started out as a means to improve the election process and minimize voting irritants. Some fiascos:

Failed Election Modernization Program

The Comelec wasted P2.3 billion for its modernization program timed for the 2004 national elections. Phase 1 of the program is the voters validation system that cost P1 billion. Phase 2 is the automated counting and canvassing programmed supposedly costing P1.3 billion but for which only P1 billion was disbursed. Phase 3 is the electronic data transmission, consolidation, and dissemination of results worth P300 million.

The voter validation system was a rehash of VRIS (Voter Registration and Information System), the controversial tamper-proof voters’ ID system that was struck down by the Supreme Court for an anomalous bidding process that awarded the contract to Photokina Marketing Corp. It would have cost the country P6.5 billion — with that amount covering only a partial completion of the project.

Since the validation system did not have any budgetary allocation, Comelec had to source funds from the budget for the automated counting machines (ACMs) to purchase data capturing machines. When it suspended the validation process on December 12, 2003, Comelec was only able to validate 5.7 million voters (though the last report was 9 million) out of the 38 million voters. Not a single voter got an ID.

When the lists were released in April 2004, the total number of voters jumped up to 43.5 million, an increase of seven million people since the last elections in 2001. The increase, which was inconsistent with the population growth rate, was traced by a Comelec official (who had opposed the validation system) to the fact that it was done simultaneously with the registration of first-time voters using the same forms.

Days before the 2004 elections, the Supreme Court invalidated the P1.3-billion contract won by a Korean firm-led consortium that would have allowed the use of ACMs. The Court decision cited a number of glaring irregularities that attended the bidding process, among which were: the award of the contract to an unqualified bidder, Mega Pacific eSolutions, which was incorporated 11 days before the submission of bids; the changing of the bid specifications in the middle of the evaluation; and the award of the contract prior to the report of the bids and awards committee.

Comelec has already paid Mega Pacific P1.04 billion. The South Korean vendor, meantime, rejected the commission’s request for it to buy back the ACMs. The machines are being kept in the Comelec Maxilite warehouse, for which the commission is paying P3.9 million in storage fees each year.

Comelec’s efforts to undertake its own Quick Count via VSAT (very small aperture terminal)-automated transmission was similarly halted by the Supreme Court as it was part of the voided contract with Mega Pacific. The Court’s ruling also indicated a lack of confidence in the Comelec to competently carry out and report the results of its quick count. The Comelec likewise allocated P300 million from the ACM-purchase fund for the failed electronic canvassing and transmission. A Comelec official admitted that the deployment of the technology was already too late and that they didn’t have trained personnel to operate the system.

Lack of Serious Voter Education

There is very little evidence, notes the International Republican Institute in its report on the 2004 elections, that the Comelec gave significant priority to its responsibility to conduct a basic and broadly disseminated voter education program.

The only department that is remotely connected with voter education is the Information and Education Department, which basically just tries to package the laws and Comelec resolutions in question-and-answer form to be distributed to voters. Very few regional offices like the one in NCR are able to do on their own initiative campaigns to educate voters.

IPER’s Ramon Casiple puts it more bluntly: “There has been no decent voter education that’s been done for the past 20 years after Marcos. We have three generations of Filipinos comprising virtually all of the electorate who did not go through any serious education on elections and democracy. And more than half of them are from the martial-law generation. In such a situation, you will not be surprised why votes are for sale, why elections are like fiestas, and why the popular candidates win.”

Abalos’s “Father of the Comelec” Acts

Barely warming his seat as Comelec chair, Benjamin Abalos Sr. went on a spending spree by authorizing a performance incentive pay equivalent to a month’s salary for the poll body’s 5,200 personnel, which at an average of P10,000 per employee translated to some P52 million. Abalos also approved the purchase of seven new cars — at P1.2 million each — for all the commissioners despite their having been issued two to four vehicles each, including the latest models of Grandias, Chevrolet Ventures, and Stratas.

Meetings of the commissioners have also turned classy since Abalos replaced Alfredo Benipayo as the new chairman prefers flashy restaurants, the most frequented of which is Wack Wack Golf and Country Club, in which Abalos has shares.

Pardo’s Ballot-Counting Machines

The 1997 Election Automation Act called for the use of ballot-counting machines to tally votes at the precinct level and to consolidate the municipal, provincial and national results. But the automated system was used only in the ARMM provinces of Lanao del Sur, Maguindanao, Sulu, and Tawi-Tawi in 1998.

The multibillion peso automated counting machines used, however, suffered massive and total systems breakdown that resulted in their inability to read the ballots properly, the failure of the ballots to reject spurious and excess ballots, as well as material discrepancies of the figures in various election documents. Along with several dozen obsolete Polaroid cameras, the counting machines that could not count are now sitting idly in some Comelec warehouse.

Eddie Gil’s Presidential Bid

How could the Abalos Comelec have allowed Eddie Gil to run for president? The more respectable past members of the Commission would never have allowed a nuisance candidate to make a circus out of the elections.