Slow printing of 50M ballots triggers alarm

Slow printing of 50M ballots triggers alarm
By Kristine L. Alave
Philippine Daily Inquirer

MANILA, Philippines—Yet another glitch in the May 10 automated elections looms.

The National Printing Office (NPO) is unlikely to produce the required 50 million ballots for the elections and may have to acquire more machines to do the job, or print 15 million ballots for manual polling for the shortfall, officials said Wednesday.

In an urgent memorandum dated March 1 to the Commission on Elections (Comelec) project management office, Esmeralda Amora-Ladra, head of the poll body’s printing committee, said that the four NPO machines were not operating at maximum capacity.

The daily output is disappointing, leading her to suggest that the Comelec should prepare contingency measures, including the printing of ballots for manual elections.

The memorandum, made available to the Inquirer, noted that as of March 1, some 7.9 million ballots for the electronic balloting had been printed. Of the number, 5.3 million were accepted as “good ballots,” while the rest have yet to be checked.

“Granting that 7,878,480 (printed minus quarantined ballots) are all good ballots, we still have to print a total of 42,845,254 for a period of 54 days. This means, we should be able to have a daily production of 793,430,629, more or less, per day from four printers, which is impossible!” the memorandum read.

Smartmatic-TIM, Comelec’s joint venture partner in the first nationwide automated elections, has leased to the commission four Kodak VersaMark VL 4000 printers, each capable of printing 200,000 ballots.

Ladra said the printers’ daily output was only 650,000 or 162,500 each. At this capacity, she said only 34.1 million ballots would be printed by April 25, when the Comelec starts to ship out the ballots. There will still be 8.9 million ballots to be printed.

Alternative: Manual ballots

She said the Comelec should ensure that a fifth printer from China should be operational before April 5, the original schedule of its operation. If the machine starts printing the same day, it will take until May 1 to complete the 42 million ballots, Ladra said.

“Or in the alternative, prepare for the printing of 8,996,443 or for 15 million manual ballots, more or less, for places which have to vote using manual elections for lack of material time,” Ladra said.

The 15 million ballots correspond to the 30-percent manual balloting that the Comelec expects will not be covered by the electronic vote under its fall back position—or Plan B—for a hybrid polling, officials said.

Manual vote preparation

She reminded the Comelec that it would take a month to procure the materials and prepare for the printing of blank ballots for the manual elections.

In the previous elections, voters had to write the names of their choices on the blank spaces. With the automated balloting, voters will have to fully shade the oval space beside the names of their candidates.

Some poll watchdogs and information technology experts have warned the Comelec that conducting a fully automated elections will be difficult and that it should prepare for contingency measures in case some areas have to resort to manual balloting.

The delayed schedule of the ballot printing, originally set for January, has prompted adjustments in the process.

Last month, it was revealed that 1.8 million ballots for the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao did not have NPO security marks as it did not have enough time to perfect the marks when printing started in the first week of February.

Too complicated

Commissioner Gregorio Larrazabal said Ladra‘s memorandum would be discussed in the steering committee on Thursday. He noted that Comelec and Smartmatic-TIM had planned to increase the production of ballots at the NPO.

Larrazabal, the steering committee head, said Smartmatic-TIM had deployed Kodak technicians to the NPO.

“At the start, the production was not as high as predicted, but it’s okay now,” he said, noting that the four machines produced 700,000 ballots Wednesday. Larrazabal said that the ballots printed had reached 12 million.

The suggestion that the Comelec should prepare for manual elections was nixed, he said.

“It’s off the table,” Larrazabal said, noting that it would be too complicated to conduct manual and automated elections because of different rules and different materials.

Comelec commitment

The Comelec, he said, is committed to print all 50 million ballots.

Larrazabal said the agency also was looking at leasing smaller Kodak printers. He noted that there were Kodak printers in Clark, Pampanga, that the Comelec can use, although it was still unclear if they will be placed at the NPO plant in Quezon City.

He said that the NPO facility may lack space for the ballots and the machines. “We are looking for more space at the NPO,” he said.

Although the printers will be of different model, Larrazabal said the quality of the ballots will be the same.

77K ballot boxes

Also on Wednesday, Smartmatic-TIM and Comelec officials said they were expecting 77,000 ballot boxes from Taiwan to arrive in Manila before May. Some 10,000 ballot boxes have been stored at the PhilPost Distribution Center in Manila.

The ballot boxes will be stored at the PhilPost warehouse until they are shipped out to the Comelec regional hubs just days before May 10, Larrazabal said.

At present, 5,000 ballot boxes are already at the PhilPost Distribution Center, with another 5,000 expected Thursday, officials said.

Karen Ang

A plebeian who is trying to make small changes in this world.