Thursday, December 17, 2009

"Prepare for manual polls"

by Angie M. Rosales

Original Story:

Smartmatic-TIM, despite its many culpable breaches of the contract and terms of reference for the nationwide polls, is not being penalized nor held accountable by the Commission on Elections (Comelec), its officials admitted yesterday during a joint congressional session.

And even as they admitted that they expect more hitches, adding to the delay in the delivery of the automated counting machines, known as the pricinct count optical scan (PCOS), as well as setbacks in carrying out full automation for the May 2010 polls, Comelec officials still gave a 100 percent guarantee that full nationwide automated polls will push through.

On the issue of public accountability on the part of the consortium, it was discovered that Smartmatic is not being held liable for any penalty for delinquency, and for not being able to deliver on time, following a contractual schedule.

This was gathered by the lawmakers, after Rep. Edcel Lagman asked about penalties imposed by the poll body, as stated in the contract.

Lagman pointed to a provision in the contract stating that for every day of delay in the delivery, the Comelec would be charging the usual one-tenth of one percent daily of the value of the PCOS.

Lawmakers were floored to discover that this provision on accountability on the part of Smartmatic-TIM Corp. has been rendered useless as the Comelec consented to some of the delays.

“There have been changes in the schedule but these have been agreed upon with the project management office and we have worked that way ever since. We have no plans of defaulting,” a Smartmatic representative said.

Of the more than P7 billion contract bagged by Smartmatic-TIM Corp.,at least 20 percent has already been paid by the government to the consortium or an estimated P1.5 billion.

Comelec officials claimed at the start that no money will be released to Smartmatic, except upon deliveries.

Rep. Rufus Rodriguez also pointed out the possible delay in the configuration of machines which will start on Jan. 7, 2010.

“We will now be pushing everything already down the line. You are delayed on the machines, it should have been Nov. 16.”

The revised implementation calendar submitted to the House clealry states that the delivery of systems and machines starts Nov. 11, 2009 and ends Nov. 16.

“And the bigger problem is that under this calendar of activities, the testing of systems and machines is from Nov. 17 up to Dec. 17 today, when we should have already tested this. Everything should have been tested, the systems and the machines, by today. How come we are still talking about deliveries when today should have been the deadline to have tested all the systems and machines?” He asked.

Yet poll officials insist that they are on track as far as delivery of PCOS machines are concerned, but confessing at the same time that the machines due to be shipped this month are nowhere near completion, with almost 10,000 units still to be manufactured by the supplier.

Lawmakers sitting in the joint congressional oversight committee on the Automated Election System (AES) expressed alarm as even the delivery of the software, they were informed, had hit a snag.

Senators and congressmen expressed their inclination for a possible shift to manual or partial automation, in case of a worst case scenario, if full automation would not be feasible, despite all the preparations, arrangements and funding provided by both Congress and the Executive.

“I urge the Comelec commissioners to be true and honest. If it can’t be done, don’t force the issue and rush into automation just for the sake of automation,” Sen. Francis “Chiz” Escudero, co-chairman of the oversight committee, said in briefing the reporters after the hearing.

“It’s not going according to schedule as of today’s hearing date. They (poll officials) submitted a different timetable when we were hearing the budget on the automated elections,” he said, adding that the poll body should prepare for a shift to manual or partial automation if it is unable by March 10 to assure a fail-safe implementation of the full automation of the 2010 polls.

Senate President Juan Ponce Enrile agreed that resorting to manual system should be an option rather than not have any elections at all, saying that it would be disastrous for the country if a postponement of the electoral exercise occurs.

Comelec officials confirmed previous reports that the supplier, Smartmatic-TIM Corp. is unable to deliver the machines this month and also admitted to their failure in meeting some of the self-imposed deadlines such as the testing of the machines and their configurations.

Yet they repeatedly assured the lawmakers that they are on track, amid these revelations.

“May I inform the oversight committee that we are on track although there will be a delay in delivering the full 40,000 by the end of December, the entire 80,000 will be delivered on time. The initial schedule was Feb. 28 but by Feb. 22 all machines, all 80,000 machines will be delivered,” Comelec Commissioner Rene Sarmiento said.

Escudero along with Congressmen Rodriguez and Lagman raised the alarm over several changes in the schedule both the poll body and Smartmatic had given them, compared to the original plan and what is actually taking place, as they raised the alarm over the implication of all the hitches being suffered by the poll automation system.

“Certain situations and events have caused the delay, beyond our control and the Comelec. We are working to deliver,” Gene Gregorio, Smartmatic-TIM public affairs officer told the committee.

“The testing of the machines is not being conducted today because you have not delivered the machines. There can be no testing of the machines because the machines are not here now,” Rodriguez said, adding that the machines should have been delivered beginning Nov. 26, according to their original calendar in the contract. This was stipulated.of 2,666 machines a day and that was what supposed to be tested during this period that we are in right now. That was in your calendar of activities that you printed and submitted to Congress when it was put to a vote, when we approved the budget,” Escudero stressed.

Initially, Comelec Executive Director Jose Tolentino claimed that the schedule of the completion of the delivery of PCOS will be earlier than expected as all 82,000 units will be in Manila by Feb. 22 while the original date was Feb. 28.

Tolentino, under congressional grilling had to admit that Comelec cannot meet the deadline of deliveries due before the end of the year.

The Comelec official laid the blame on lack of maritime vessels, saying it is the Christmas season and shipments are full, but claimed that 40,000 machines are ready.

“You are telling the joint committee that all of the 40,000 units supposed to be delivered this December are already manufactured?” Lagman asked.

Tolentino said the 30,000 will be available by the end of the month.

“Is this an extraordinary Christmas? The shipping bottleneck is extraordinary even during the recession?” Rep. Teodoro “Teddyboy” Locsin Jr., co-chairman, commented.

“That was the information given to us your honor that there are no vessels available and on my part, I would rather have smaller shipments being sent to the Philippines because if a vessel, let’s say sinks, we lose only 4 container vans instead of 10 or 12 container vans,” Tolentino said.

Rufus also noted that there is no assurance that availability of the “source code” will also be met.

The source code provides the human-readable instructions for the automated election system, including voting and counting machines, transmission and telecommunication devices and servers.

It is being reviewed by US-based SysTest Labs, that tests the system’s security, telecommunications, error notification, auditing, and recovery
, as well as its functions under various load and stress situations to ensure that it will produce correct results and exclude codes that could wreak havoc on the system and allow fraud.

Commission on Information and Communication Technology (CICT) chair Ray Anthony Roxas-Chua III told the committee that it is still a work in progress.

“It’s still being developed as we speak. Pieces of it are being brought to SysTest Labs for certification but the complete software is not yet done, that’s why it’s not yet ready,” Chua said.

The target schedule is Feb. 18 but Chua told the committee that Smartmatic has been delivering portions of the software to SysTest Labs or given the complete package yet.

“What is achieved by breaking it up? Tested in parts?” Locsin inquired.

“So they can start looking at the code. You can look at the code but you cannot run it until you it is completed,” said Chua.

Enrile asked the Comelec officials point blank for assurance on implementing an automated polls, despite all the delays and current problems.

“Mr. Senate president, in response to your question, yes we have difficulties, delays but yes we will have an automated system,” said Sarmiento.

“So you can assure the people that in spite of your delays in deliveries and many other things you can really assure an automated elections in 2010, no ifs and buts about it?” Enrile asked.

“No ifs and buts Mr. Senate president. We will do our best, 100 percent for our country,” Sarmiento claimed.

“Not your best, but I want your 100 percent assurance. The reason I’m asking this is that you know the danger of no election in this country. We cannot afford not to have an election. An automated election, everybody has been done to keep up with an automated election and if you have not yet delivered this system, its going to blast us away,” Enrile said.

Escudero said that the committee will 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. They should be held accountable for the delay,” he pointed out.

Escudero also criticized the Comelec for agreeing to changes in the timetables 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 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. 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 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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