Get real
Philippine Daily Inquirer, 10 March 2012


It must be puzzling to the uninitiated that despite its documented poor performance in the 2010 elections and the resulting complaints against it by those advocating clean, honest elections, etc., Smartmatic remains the Commission on Elections’ choice (with Commissioner Gus Lagman being the sole dissenter) as technologypartner/provider in its election activities.

It must be equally puzzling to the uninitiated that despite the fact that Gus Lagman is the only member of the Comelec who has IT expertise, not to mention long experience and commitment in keeping elections clean and honest, his suggestions and recommendations keep getting shunted aside.

Only consider:

Smartmatic’s performance in the 2010 elections has been criticized by many. Start with the report of the House committee on suffrage, of which its then chair, Rep. Teddy Locsin, recommended a return to manual processes unless the shortcomings of the automated system were plugged (they haven’t been). Then there is most of the IT community—e.g., the Philippine Computer Society—which went as far as filing criminal and administrative cases against the Comelec, Smartmatic et al. with the Office of the Ombudsman (no response).

Add to that civil society organizations like Namfrel, Lente and CenPeg, and concerned individuals (e.g., my husband, former Comelec Chair Christian Monsod, who delivered what was generally considered an excellent Jaime Ongpin Memorial Lecture on the topic). Even the Comelec Advisory Council (CAC) was critical—and recommended that Smartmatic be penalized for its shortcomings and that its Precinct Count Optical Scan (PCOS) machines not be purchased.

The only organization which continues to think that Smartmatic did a good job is the PPCRV (Parish Pastoral Council for Responsible Voting), whose performance regarding the Random Manual Audit was markedly less than stellar.

The irony is that Smartmatic’s defense has always been that it was only following the Comelec’s orders, thus laying full blame on the poll body (with nary an objection from the latter). Which, in the literal sense, is true, because the Comelec is in charge of elections. Except that it was clear to everyone that the Comelec, with very little in-house capability/expertise on automation, leaned heavily on Smartmatic’s advice, and was markedly partial to it.

An exaggeration? Judge for yourself: Over and above the PCOS contract, which cost about P7.2  billion, Smartmatic was awarded another—this time negotiated—contract (possibly others) for P1.1 billion consisting of P376 million to supply ballot boxes and P700 million for the deployment of ballot boxes and official ballots. Had there been bidding, Smartmatic would not have qualified, having had no experience in these tasks.

What’s wrong with P1.1 billion? Compare this with the cost incurred by the Comelec for deploying ballot boxes and official ballots in the barangay elections five months later: around P200 million. Why should it cost so much more when done by Smartmatic (which just turned around and subcontracted them) than when done by the Comelec? Even more basic, why was it given to Smartmatic at all?  The reason given—pressure of time—doesn’t fly. It is unbelievable that the Comelec would have forgotten, until the last two minutes, that ballot boxes had to be ordered and deployed.

The reader may point out that one swallow does not a summer make. How about this? Despite those charges and recommendations against Smartmatic, the Comelec—not the Melo Comelec, but the Brillantes Comelec—still decided that it would use Smartmatic and its PCOS machines for the then upcoming ARMM elections in 2011, for P880 million—P130 million for the purchase of 4,000 PCOS machines and P750 million for “technology-related services.”

This is the situation that Gus Lagman found when he joined the Comelec as commissioner. Gus, an IT expert who headed Namfrel Quick Count since its inception, was horrified, probably not only because Smartmatic was still going to be involved in elections after its many booboos, but also because it was getting a contract at very favorable expenditure ratios: With about 1 million voters, the Comelec would be paying Smartmatic about P880 for every voter in the ARMM. That is six times what the Comelec paid Smartmatic (P7.2 billion for 50 million voters) for similar services in 2010.

Naturally, Gus, now the resident Comelec IT expert, opposed it—but he lost by a vote of 6-1 (there are seven Comelec commissioners). It may have been a blessing in disguise that the ARMM elections were postponed.

That was the first defeat Gus suffered in the Comelec. Another was the Consolidation and Canvassing System (CCS), which had been outsourced to the vendor for the 2008 ARMM elections and the 2010 automated elections.  Gus asked the Comelec’s IT department if they could develop their own CCS, and the answer was an emphatic yes.

The project was completed on time, for P1 million. How much did Smartmatic charge for its CCS? P58 million. One would have thought that the in-house project would have been accepted with open arms. And one would have been wrong. Ironically, the PPCRV representative in the CAC (former Commissioner Gregorio Larrazabal, who worked hand in glove with Smartmatic) posed strong objections, saying that the technology was untried (a ridiculous comment, because the technology is nothing but laptops, PCs, servers and standard communication facilities). And again, apparently, Gus’ colleagues turned Gus’ project down.

Puzzles for the uninitiated. But to those in the know, the situation is crystal-clear.