Comelec scrambles to fix glitch before polls

Comelec scrambles to fix glitch before polls
The Philippine Star

MANILA, Philippines (AP) – Election officials scrambled Thursday to fix a computer glitch that sparked fears of a chaotic failure of the country’s first automated presidential polls and calls to postpone next week’s vote.

The Commission on Elections discovered a problem with the memory cards of the optical counting machines during final tests early this week, prompting it to recall the cards in about 76,000 machines already deployed in as many precincts across the archipelago.

With just days before 50 million Filipino voters elect a new president, vice president and officials to fill nearly 18,000 national and local posts, the last-minute glitch fed suspicions of possible vote-rigging amid scattered political violence that has claimed dozens of lives.

Elections officials and Venezuela-based Smartmatic, the private consortium that won a 7.2 billion peso ($160 million) contract to supply the counting machines, said they were dealing with the logistical nightmare amid a massive effort to correct the defects in the memory cards and attach them back to the machines.

They assured Filipinos that Monday’s elections will proceed as scheduled, dispelling rumors, which spread through cell phone text messages, that the polls will be postponed for at least two weeks.

Authorities began to test the repaired machines in three cities in metropolitan Manila on Thursday to determine if they work. Tests in one voting center in Makati city showed the machines were “100 percent” accurate, said Cesar Flores, Smartmatic’s Asia-Pacific regional head.

“It appears that our prayers are being answered,” Commission on Elections Chairman Jose Melo told a news conference.

Flores said he was ready to face a possible government investigation but said his company’s main focus was to ensure successful polls. He refused to say how costly the mistake was for Smartmatic.

“We are not counting money now, we have an election to save,” Flores said. “It was a stupid mistake with huge consequences.”

Opposition Sen. Benigno Aquino III, who has topped election surveys, strongly objected to any election postponement, saying a delay could result in “a potentially disastrous crisis of a leadership vacuum” when President Arroyo steps down on June 30.

Aquino blasted election officials for mishandling the vote-count automation and suggested they should resign. “Their efforts have so far only yielded disastrous results,” he told reporters.

Ousted President Joseph Estrada, who has placed second in the surveys, backed a postponement but said it should not be long enough to allow Arroyo, his political nemesis, to possibly plot to extend her tumultuous term.

Under the constitution, Arroyo must hand over the presidency because of term limits, and her aides have repeatedly said she would do so.

Smartmatic told the election commission that it can fix the problem, test the new memory cards and deliver the machines all over the country in time for the vote, Elections Commissioner Gregorio Larrazabal said.

Private corporations led by beverage giant San Miguel Corp. lent at least 24 helicopters and planes. Air force helicopters also were on standby to help, Larrazabal said.

Flores said the problem was traced to “human error” and was not an act of sabotage. He even offered to deposit his passport with election officials to guarantee he would not flee the country if the elections fail.

The problem intensified calls by many groups for a manual count of votes for at least five top posts, including president, vice president, House members, governors and mayors. The commission last week rejected the proposal.

Karen Ang

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