MANILA, January 30, 2004 (STAR) GOTCHA By Jarius Bondoc - It is understandable for the Comelec to appeal the Supreme Court’s voiding of the supply contract for automated counters. The commissioners wish to clear their names of any bidding flaw - a stain on their ability to hold credible elections. But the appeal itself taints the Comelec’s, making it look no different from candidates who never accept defeat. More than that, it is wasting precious time to prepare for a long manual counting of votes.

Without the automated counters, the Comelec expects to collate the results within the usual two weeks. That is, if it follows the old method of counting, in which teachers begin unfolding and reading each ballot about an hour after the close of elections, entertaining every question of watchers of local candidates, finishing about midnight, filling up and signing piles of precinct tally forms, stuffing the ballots and forms to boxes, transporting these to city or municipal halls for canvassing of local returns, and onto provincial capitols for national returns. At each step of the way the manual counters will have to bear with hunger, fatigue, harassment, bribery, lights blowing out, complaints and harangues, ballot snatching and swtiching, and dagdag-bawas (vote padding-shaving).

National results – for president, vice, senators and congressmen – are often delayed by protests of local results. Local fights often are hotly contested and lead to violence. This time around, the national campaigns are as contentious as the local ones. Disqualification cases, destabilization plots, and mudslinging are boiling up the political temperature to a repeat of the 2001 May Day assault on Malacańang. Coupled with blots on the Comelec’s image, the usual two weeks in finishing the national count can be explosive.

The Comelec must devise a way to cut the process to only two days. And it can, given its powers and supervisory functions.

The Omnibus Election Code gives the Comelec "exclusive charge of the enforcement and administration of all laws relative to the conduct of elections for the purpose of ensuring free, orderly and honest elections". It empowers the agency to "promulgate rules and regulations implementing the provisions of this Code and other laws which the Commission is required to enforce and administer".

A shortening of the national count can start with the ballot design. Usual ballots combine the blanks for national and local positions. The rule is for the teachers, deputized as election inspectors, to read all the entries, one slow ballot at a time.

For a quicker national count, a new ballot can have a perforation separating the national and local positions. New rules can be drafted to have either the voter, upon casting, or the teacher, preparatory to reading, separate the part of the ballot for national positions from that of local ones. This way, the teachers can read and tally first only the entries for national candidates. This would only be 16 names for president, vice, 12 senators, one congressman and one party list. The count can be finished in half the usual time, say, 7 p.m. of Election Day. There won’t be the usual delaying questions because party watchers will be keeping a sharp eye out for the local results. The teachers can rest for an hour, then resume the count for the local positions. Meanwhile, the results of the national tallies can be sent to the city halls and provincial capitols for canvassing, then transmitted to the Comelec central office.

For greater efficiency, the ballot may be designed with the blank for congressman included on the perforated portion of the local positions. The point is to identify which positions elicit the most questions and protests, and leave them for later counting.

The Comelec can start receiving the national tallies from the field on the same night of the counting up to the afternoon of the next day. It will all depend on what transportation and communications facilities it will require. By the second day it would have collated the results. The electorate will know who the new president, vice and senators are in only two days.

There is risk, according to politicians, in transporting the national tallies first to the canvassing centers. Still, this is the same as transporting the old, combined ballot: losers can have the boxes snatched or the ballots and tally forms switched. But not if it is done under guard by the police or students from the ROTC. Besides, ballot snatchings and switchings are tricks of local pols; national tallies are unintended victims.

Management experts had suggested all this to the Comelec in 1998, a year of synchronized national and local elections. But the commissioners said they couldn’t do it because the ballots had already been printed.

Not this time. The Comelec is still contemplating on whether to use its special paper stock for automated counters for the printing of manual ballots, or if it should order the usual paper with watermarks. It has yet to print the ballots for each voting district, city and province. It has time to redesign the old ballots to include the all-important perforation.

The retirement of two commissioners next week also affords the electorate a chance to have management experts or industrial engineers to sit instead of the usual lawyers. This way, the new commissioners can think out of the box and craft various other ways to shorten the manual count, with the aim of giving national results within hours, not weeks of the balloting.

If it works, there’ll be no need in the future for expensive automated counters, which are now being criticized in the US for being prone to secret software manipulation.

* * * Catch Sapol ni Jarius Bondoc, Saturdays at 8 a.m., on DWIZ (882-AM).

* * * E-mail: jariusbondoc@workmail.com

Reported by: Sol Jose Vanzi

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