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Why is Comelec still doing business with Smartmatic?

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By Getsy Tiglao

Getsy Tiglao

Getsy Tiglao

When former Commission on Elections chairman Juan Andres Bautista resigned last year amid corruption allegations, everyone had hoped that the Comelec would finally get its act together and clean up house.

As it turns out, it was wishful thinking to expect deep changes in an agency that has no desire to be accountable to the public for its actions, or be transparent in all its major business dealings.

There are still a lot of strange things going on in the Comelec, not the least of which is its close bond with the dodgy Venezuelan company Smartmatic, the provider of the voting machines used in the last elections and whose reliability is so much still in question until today.

Last year, the Department of Justice had already indicted personnel of Smartmatic and the Comelec for allegedly tampering with the transparency server used in the 2016 national elections. One of those indicted was Smartmatic technical team head Marlon Garcia who admitted tweaking the server the night of the elections May 9, 2016, as the results were being transmitted.

Garcia’s excuse for accessing the computer system at the height of the vote count? He said he tweaked the “script” of the server to change the special character “?” to the Spanish tilde symbol “ñ”. Hmmm. As far as excuses go, this was so weak and unconvincing.

The DOJ said it found probable cause to criminally charge Smartmatic and Comelec IT personnel for changing the script in the transparency server which it said violated the confidentiality and integrity of the computer system used for the elections.

Now comes the news that Comelec purchased P2.2 billion worth of Smartmatic vote-counting machines, which it intends to use in the 2019 midterm elections. The public would have been unaware that it did this, were it not exposed by presidential adviser on political affairs Francis Tolentino.

Tolentino said it was “highly irregular” for the Comelec to sign such a contract without informing the public. It also appears that there was no public bidding when the election body bought the 97,517 vote counting machines. But the agency maintains the deal was aboveboard.

Tolentino said the deal was signed three weeks before the scheduled retirement of then acting Comelec chairman Christian Robert Lim. Apparently, the deal was approved by the Comelec around Christmas and then signed by Lim in early January, 2018. Midnight deal? Perhaps the DOJ should start looking into this case.

Comelec’s Lim confirmed the multi-billion purchase in a hearing conducted by the Joint Congressional Oversight Committee on the Automated Election System last February 1. Rep. Sherwin Tugna and Senator Francis Escudero are co-chairs of the committee.

The committee is questioning why the Comelec had to buy the Smartmatic voting machines for P2.2 billion when it had rented the same dubious machines for P2.8 billion in the 2016 general elections.

At the time it rented the Precinct Count Optical Scan (PCOS) voting machines, Comelec said they were prone to obsolescence with a high cost of maintenance. Thus, the decision to rent and not buy. So why buy the old machines, the same ones that Smartmatic personnel had apparently tampered and tweaked with? Are they suddenly not obsolete anymore?

Aside from the Dengvaxia-like speed with which the PCOS machines were purchased, there is also the question whether buying the old machines makes economic sense.

As correctly noted by Rep. Tugna, “You rented it, and then you didn’t include in the purchase price what you earlier paid for as rental. It’s basic economics. Why was rental separate if there was a plan to purchase it eventually?” The joint oversight committee will continue its hearing on the Comelec-Smartmatic deal on February 22.

Indeed, Comelec officials have a lot of explaining to do, especially on its insistence with continuing its business deals with a suspect entity such as Smartmatic. This company has a bad record all over the world – it has messed up elections in Mexico, Brazil, and Venezuela.

Smartmatic’s chairman is none other Mark Malloch Brown, who was the media “handler” of former president Corazon Aquino. Details of how Brown and his firm Sawyer Miller orchestrated Aquino’s campaign is detailed in James Harding’s book book, “Alpha Dogs – The Americans who Turned Political Spin Into a Global Business.”

Comelec should cut its ties with the untrustworthy Smartmatic. It’s inconceivable that there’s no other company, even local IT and tech firms, that can offer more reliable election systems. Until Smartmatic is removed from our shores, the integrity of our elections, the very heart of our democracy, will always be at risk.

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