Saturday, December 19, 2009

Oversight panel moves to plug automation gaps

Written by Butch Fernandez / Reporter
Thursday, 17 December 2009 20:48

Original Story:

A CONGRESSIONAL oversight committee yesterday moved to plug loopholes in ongoing preparations for the automated 2010 elections amid growing concerns over possible glitches that could derail the holding of orderly polls on May 10.

In a public hearing cochaired by Sen. Francis Escudero and Makati Rep. Teodoro Locsin Jr., members of the oversight panel took turns grilling Commission on Elections (Comelec) officials as they sought firm assurance from Comelec and its automation contractor, Smartmatic-TIM, that the national and local polls would push through.

Citing the latest delays in the scheduled delivery of the computerized voting machines from China, Senate President Juan Ponce Enrile asked Comelec Commissioner Rene Sarmiento point-blank: “Can we be given an assurance that we are going to have an automated elections?”

“Mr. Senate President, in response to your question, yes we have difficulties, delays, but yes, we will have an automated system,” Sarmiento replied. “No ifs or buts, Mr. Senate President, we will do our best….100 percent for our country,” Sarmiento added.

But Enrile wanted a more categorical pledge from the poll officials present. “Not [just] your best but I want your 100-percent assurance,” he said. “The reason I am asking this is I think you know the danger of no election in this country.”

“We cannot afford not to have an election, an automated election; everybody has been keyed up with an automated election and if you have not yet delivered this system, it’s going to blast us,” Enrile added.

Escudero expressed dismay that the delivery schedule initially agreed upon between the Comelec and Smartmatic had not been met.

“We’re just talking of the delivery of half of the machines, they have already missed it. How about the software? The transmission? And the clean election?” he said in Pilipino.

Noting that the Comelec failed to meet the original timetable for the delivery of the counting machines, Escudero echoed concerns that “it is not going according to schedule as of today’s hearing date. They [Comelec officials] submitted a different timetable when we were hearing the budget on the automated elections.”

He pointed out that in the Comelec’s original proposal, automated machines should have been delivered starting October 1, 2009, and should have been completed by December 30, 2009. However, the commission posted a different timeline on its web site, which moved the date of delivery to November 1, 2009, with full completion by December 31, 2009.

“As of today’s hearing, the Comelec has again moved the timeline of delivery starting December 17, 2009, until February 22, 2010,” he said.

Escudero told reporters the oversight committee would look into the failure of Smartmatic to deliver the counting machines according to the schedule in the approved contract.

“I don’t think we should be lenient about it. They gave us assurances that it can be done…I think they should be held accountable for the delay,” he pointed out.

The senator also criticized the Comelec for agreeing to changes in the timetable without informing the oversight committee.

“Yes, the adjustments of timeline have been mutually agreed by the Comelec and Smartmatic, which is permitted under the signed contract. But what begs to be asked is why the Comelec doesn’t demand from Smartmatic to meet the scheduled timeline. It should insist on penalizing Smartmatic for every delay it causes in meeting the deadline.”

Escudero explained that under the poll-automation contract, for every machine undelivered Smartmatic should pay one-half of 1 percent of the total value of the contract or partial total value of the unfulfilled portion of the deliverables.

“If penalties were imposed, Comelec would have saved a lot of money. Let us not forget that this contract amounts to P7.4 billion, which all goes to the rent.”

During the hearing, the Comelec said it needs two months before the May 10 polls to shift to manual voting in a worst-case scenario.

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