Speech delivered by Hon. Commissioner Rene V. Sarmiento before the House Committee on Suffrage and Electoral Reform on July 31, 2008
There are conflicting perspectives on the issue of postponing the ARMM elections thereby making this a very difficult question to resolve. We, in the Commission on Elections acknowledge this, and we do not envy the Honorable Members of Congress this task that has fallen upon this august Chamber.
Instead, we respectfully offer our point of view.
The COMELEC is deeply interested in this electoral exercise.
First, it has already spent hundreds of millions of pesos on the automation of the electoral process. In response to the looming possibility of postponement, we are currently undertaking a review of the contract to determine how delay will affect the project. Considering that the automated election system about to be rolled out on the 11th of August is partly leased and partly purchased, if the elections are delayed – or worse, postponed indefinitely – there is the possibility that the contracts might terminate without elections ever being held. And at the end of that road, we will be left holding nothing but the bill.
No elections, no lessons in automation, and no equipment to use if and when the elections push through.
On the other hand, there is also the possibility of negotiating longer leasing terms in order to accommodate a delayed election date. But that course of action raises its own crop of issues – especially considering how quickly technology evolves. If the elections are delayed for a long time – some say until 2010 – one is left wondering whether the machines units will still be ideal, or even whether the system is still relevant. At that point, we will have to grapple with the reality that we would have wasted hundreds of millions of taxpayers’ money for a project that would have borne great fruit had it not been cut down.
In any case, a re-negotiation of the terms will undoubtedly generate additional costs. And since no delay has been budgeted for, where will the money for that come?
Second, the automated election system (both OMR and DRE based) has already been proven to be accurate and efficient in two successive mock elections held this past week. However, these successes need to be consolidated in a full-blown electoral exercise, with real stakes, if we’re serious about automating the 2010 elections. Without a real and binding election to demonstrate the worth of an AES, it will be very difficult to gain any sort of public acceptance for automation in 2010; low public acceptance greatly decreases the possibility for a successful implementation.
Third, the Advisory Council has repeatedly said that their recommendation for 2010 hinge on the outcome of the 2008 ARMM polls. They will be looking at the acceptability, for instance, of DRE over OMR (and vice-versa); they will be looking at ease of use; and they will be looking at whatever vulnerabilities might be revealed. Without the ARMM elections, we might well still be able to automate the 2010 polls, but we will be doing so without the benefit of practical knowledge.
It might be argued that we’re not the only ones automating elections, and that it is the easiest of things to learn from the experiences of others. That would be wrong. While the lessons learned by others will be of some value, it will not be relevant enough for our purposes. After all, what other jurisdiction conducts elections for President all the way down to Municipal Mayor all in one day? The sheer size of our elections alone makes us unique as far automating the exercise goes.
And so, the question goes: if we don’t automate in 2008, what will the Advisory Council’s recommendation be based on? And, considering the bases for the recommendation, will the recommendation be the best quality recommendation possible?
Fourth, the electoral system’s credibility has taken quite a beating over the past few years. A satisfactory roll-out in 2008 would have started the system back on the road to full credibility. Without the automated ARMM polls in 2008, there will be no way for the electoral system’s credibility to be rehabilitated; we start the rehab from step 0 in 2010. With everything that’s riding on the outcome of the 2010 elections, that’s an unacceptable state of affairs.
Fifth, it must be remembered that the voting processes isn’t the only component of the electoral system. Registration is a critical element as well. Pragmatically speaking, if the COMELEC is now deprived of the opportunity to demonstrate its ability to shepherd the automation of the voting process, how can it have the goodwill to push for the acquisition of the systems necessary to similarly update the registration process? Success begets success; misfires only spawn more misfires.
These reasons are primarily logical considerations that drive the COMELEC to reject the idea of postponement. But there is one other consideration: The Heartbreak Factor.
Automation has galvanized not just the COMELEC but also a large part of civil society. The Parish Pastoral Council for Responsible Voting, for instance, has committed considerable time and effort to mobilizing partners both Christian and Muslim throughout the ARMM. Citizen’s CARE, a homegrown organization of dedicated locals has been conducting its own voter education campaign in support of automation.
There may be some who face the prospect of automated elections with some trepidation, but by and large, Your Honors, the people in the ARMM are looking forward to this exercise with great anticipation. If we frustrate them now, we are looking at the certainty of massive demoralization – not just among those who have been working tirelessly at promoting automated elections, but more importantly among those who have been so looking forward to pioneering this next step in the evolution of our electoral system.
One final thing. This Commissioner has been for ten years a member of the GRP Panel Negotiating with CPP/NPA/NDF. For a year I was the OIC-Presidential Adviser on the Peace Process shepherding the peace process involving the GRP, MNLF and MILF. My experience is that there are twists and turns, detours, zigs and zags in the peace process. Surprises and disagreements are not remote even on the day of signing agreements. The peace formula should be: on with the peace process, on with the elections. The two are not compatible but are indivisible components of a just and lasting peace in Mindanao.
On behalf of the COMELEC – and perhaps in behalf of everyone else with a stake in this – I ask this august Chamber not to let this heartbreak come to pass. Let us proceed with the elections, and together reap the benefits of automation.