THE contingency plan prepared by the Commission on Elections (Comelec) for the coming May elections was tackled at the House of Representatives Wednesday.

Comelec Commissioner Armando Velasco said that 30 percent of polling places were not covered by GPS (Global Positioning System), which will be used by Smartmatic-TIM for the transmission of the ballot count.

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For towns without GPS, the broadband global area network satellite (BGAN) will be used.

Smartmatic-TIM Project Manager Ruliena Piñate said their survey, which is already 99.5 percent complete, showed that some places in Leyte, Maguindanao, Sulu, Davao del Sur, and Lanao del Sur have no cell phone signal.

Parañaque Representative Rolio Golez expressed concern over the 30 percent figure, saying a contingency plan for such a percentage of the polling precincts is too high.

“Even five percent has a big effect. If we have a system where the Comelec himself has a 30 percent contingency, they have already allowed maneuvering,” he said.

The presence of a contingency implies that there could be a possible problem.

The 30 percent projected contingency will be high enough to twist the outcome of the election. Golez cited the 1992 elections, where former President Fidel Ramos's lead over Ramon Mitra was only one percent.

Comelec Legal Department head Anthony Rafanan however explained that the “very conservative estimate” of 30 percent does not pertain to projected failure but only for preparation.

He also clarified that the 30 percent has nothing to do with transmission but in the failure of the Precinct Count Optical Scan (PCOS) machine.

“Those are only for comfort. Not really because we foresee that there will be manual counting... Failure of machine will only be remote because we have several intermediate steps before we resort in the end to manual,” he said.

The first step, according to Rafanan, would be to call the technical assistance man assigned to the particular precinct to diagnose the problem.

If the problem cannot be repaired, the precinct will be given one of the 7,000 contingency machines.

If the extra machine still does not work, the precinct can get another reserve machine from the 7,000. If it still fails to work, the machine from another cluster precinct can be used once more.

Because each machine is configured for the particular precinct, the machine from another machine will have to be reconfigured again.

If that still fails to work, the ballots will have to be counted manually.

Golez raised concern on who would decide on the implementation of the different level of the contingency plan.

“Who will decide that the machine could be reconfigured because a lot of forces are coming in such as political forces, economic forces and other forces. There should be a limit to how much contingency we can accept without compromising elections," he said.

Golez said that if the town had to undergo manual counting, usual instances of cheating would come in.

He said watchers will have a hard time guarding the votes because the ballots are shaded, making it hard to see from a one-meter distance.

Golez recommended that the Comelec should have a low contingency level in order to not send the wrong message.

“This is not acceptance on our part but preparation. Of course we do not want it to happen and we don't see it happening," Rafanan said.

Quezon Representative Danilo Suarez also posed concern on the logistical preparation for the distribution of the machines because Smartmatic-TMI has chosen lesser known logistical companies to do the purpose.

“If you have chosen Aboitiz, we would have slept soundly tonight,” he said.

The Quezon lawmaker said they wanted the Comelec to relay a "comfort level" that the chosen logistical company could perform.

Piñate, meanwhile, said the Comelec has already formed a technical working group composed of the different departments such as the Finance, Customs and other entities.

The Comelec is set to be investigated again in a hearing to be scheduled next week.

Telecom companies are expected to submit a list of areas not covered by their cell sites.

For his part, Tawi-tawi Representative Nur Jaafar said that if 30 percent of areas in the country end up going back to manual elections due to machine failure, then poll automation defeats its purpose.

But as response, Velasco said: “It is better to have a contingency plan that to have a failure of election.”

Optimism

In Malacañang, Executive Secretary Eduardo Ermita acknowledged that it may not be 100 percent certain the automation would be successful, but they share the optimism of the Comelec.

That polls could be undertaken without much problem and if there are problem, “they’ll be in the position to indeed come up with the remedial measures in order that the elections can still continue and be undertaken peacefully and in an orderly manner.”

“While there were questions of possible dysfunctions of the automated machine, somehow there’s a general agreement that the Comelec is prepare to implement the automated election and we are confident that, as we were assured by Chairman (Jose) Melo that there are fall back measures that they’re ready to implement should there be any failure,” Ermita added.

He said they except the 82,200 automated machines including its batteries, shading pens and other needed items in the conduct of the first national automated elections to be ready by the second to third week of February.

“We just have to take their word for it and see whether indeed come March, April we will be able to check whether all the machines have come in and whether the machines even at random have been tested to find out if they could, the existence of failure in some areas,” added the Palace official.

On proposals to conduct an early election in the different hotspots, Ermita said it would be up to the Comelec to decide.

More involved

President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo meanwhile enjoined the youth sector to be more involved in the 2010 elections particularly in the campaign against guns, goons and gold to ensure and honest, orderly, peaceful and credible elections in May.

Arroyo in addressing students of the Mariano Marcos State University in Batac in Ilocos Norte said she is determined to pass on to her successor a new Philippines that is ready to become a first world country in the next 20 years.

“But to do that, free and fair elections are important. And you the students need to get involved in a positive way in the civic life of the nation…One that I asked you to do, is to be involve in civic life; two that I asked you to do, is to encourage a no guns and violence campaign, I think it is the young people who can do this campaign. So we can try to change the culture of violence,” she said.

Arroyo added that elders of today depend on the young to be more “bold” and “involve in the civic life” for the sake not just of themselves, their families and friends but also for the “generations after you and for our beloved Philippines.” (Angela M. Casauay/JMR/Sunnex)