Comelec: Reprinting no longer possible; Poe, Señeres stay on ballot

Posted on March 02, 2016

THE COMMISSION on Elections (Comelec) reiterated on Tuesday that it can no longer remove the names of Senator Grace Poe and recently departed Representative Roy V. Señeres from the ballot.

The poll body had crossed the point where reprinting is not feasible anymore, Chairman Andres D. Bautista said in a briefing.

He added that the poll body is not even discussing the possibility of striking Ms. Poe’s name off the official list of candidates during its en banc meetings.

“There’s no such talk,” he said.

A total of 10.53 million automated ballots have been printed thus far. This represented 25% of the 54.36 million automated ballots to be used locally in the May 9 elections, printed a little over two weeks after the process began on Feb. 15.

Mr. Bautista said the Comelec might not make it to the April 25 deadline if they scrap the already-printed ballots just to restart the process to exclude Ms. Poe.

“If ever we start again printing from scratch, we might not meet the deadline,” Mr. Bautista said. “The printing will just proceed. We already reached 10.5 million.”

He reaffirmed that the names of Ms. Poe and Mr. Señeres will stay on the ballot, but votes will be counted as stray, particularly in the event that the Supreme Court (SC) rules against Ms. Poe’s favor.

Ms. Poe is still fighting an appeal with the SC against the cancelation of her candidacy on the grounds of misrepresenting her citizenship and residency requirements. The high court has issued a temporary restraining order indefinitely stopping the Comelec from enforcing its resolutions.

Meanwhile, Mr. Señeres, who died Feb. 8, is the subject of conflicting requests from his family who wanted to forfeit his slot and his party who wanted to field a candidate in his stead. The Comelec had already denied the substitution of lawyer Apolonia A. Comia-Soguilon because rules allow only a relative belonging to the same party to replace a deceased candidate.

Even if the Comelec has already printed 25% of the automated ballots to be used locally, the entire production process at the National Printing Office is not close to done.

Although the printing itself seemed to be quick, Mr. Bautista said the speed of testing the ballots has yet to catch up.

Mr. Bautista noted that the printing only became faster because the 20-inch ballot is much shorter than the 27-inch ballot used during the last presidential elections in 2010.

Thus far, only 4.6 million of the ballots have been verified.

“We need more machines and add more verifiers so the verification can catch up with the printing,” the Comelec chief said. He bared plans to add 50 vote-counting machines (VCMs) to the 150-piece fleet to help speed up the testing phase.

Meanwhile, the poll body is also working out how to dispose of those that were rejected; 71,630 have to be reprinted because of defects and misalignments.

Some of the rejected ballots have been shredded, but Mr. Bautista emphasized the need for a clearer protocol for disposal. He admitted that the Comelec has been more focused on ensuring the printing is done on time.

At the same time, 208,478 ballots are currently “quarantined” (set aside) to see if there are only few defects that can still be remedied.

In a related development, Commissioner Luie Tito F. Guia said that the Comelec has increased the number of precincts where random manual audit (RMA) would be held on the night of election day.

The RMA is meant to check if the VCMs have been scanning and tallying the ballots properly “based on how it was configured to read.”

For the 2016 elections, the Comelec will subject 715 clustered precincts to RMA, or one per legislative district. This was more than triple the 234 clustered precincts that served as the sample for the 2013 elections’ audit.

Mr. Guia said the main concerns were the randomness of the audit deployment, as well as ensuring the sample was representative of the national population.

The Comelec will start training auditors, mostly public schoolteachers, in a couple of weeks.

The poll body tapped the National Citizens’ Movement for Free Elections (NAMFREL) to be the watchdog arm in the RMA process, which Mr. Guia said will also be open to the public and to poll watchers from the political parties.

In a separate development, the Comelec has missed its chance to respond to former Senator Richard J. Gordon’s petition seeking the activation of the VCM’s receipt-printing feature.

The SC on Tuesday submitted Mr. Gordon’s petition for decision, after the Comelec failed to file its comment within the non-extendible period of five days from notice.

The high court denied the Comelec’s plea for additional time to comply with the directive issued Tuesday last week.

“The court’s order of February 23, 2016 gave respondent Comelec an inextendible period of five days within which to comment,” SC Public Information Office Chief Theodore O. Te noted in a press briefing.

Asked by reporters if the SC would decide on the case without hearing the Comelec’s side, Mr. Te said: “It should submit the case for resolution.”

Mr. Bautista said he intended to file the comment on Mr. Gordon’s petition on Friday.

But when told during the briefing that the high court had denied his plea, the Comelec chief did not respond.

The Comelec in February voted 7-0 not to enable the Voter-Verified Paper Audit Trail (VVPAT) feature because it may lengthen the voting time, encourage vote-buying, and allow losing candidates to assemble supporters in a bid to question the results.

Mr. Gordon, a senatorial candidate, asked the high court on Feb. 22 to compel the Comelec to activate the VVPAT feature because it was among the minimum requirements mandated by the poll automation law (Republic Act No. 9369).

Two more petitions were filed on Friday by senatorial candidate Greco Antonious Beda G. Belgica, and lawyers Glenn A. Chong and Manuelito R. Luna, and on Monday by the PDP-Laban. -- Vince Alvic Alexis F. Nonato