Competence of ballot printer for 2013 polls questioned, but Comelec unfazed
One of the losing bidders has posted a YouTube video that purportedly shows sample ballots getting rejected or being folded to fit inside the Precinct Count Optical Scan (PCOS) machines, which will be used in the 2013 polls, during an evaluation test.
The Comelec awarded the P780-million contract for the supply and printing of 55 million ballots to Holy Family last Oct. 24, but the losing bidders -- Smartmatic-Technology Information Management and the PLDT subsidiary Advance-ASA Color – have raised doubts about the winning ballot printer’s competence.
During an evaluation test last Sept. 12 at the National Printing Office (NPO), which the Comelec has tasked to take charge of the procurement for the ballots, only two out of eight samples fit the machine because the others were larger than the required size of 8.5 inches, according to a statement from Smartmatic.
The company said the two ballots were scanned 15 times, but were read by the machine only nine times. “This gives us a whopping 60 percent scanning failure,” Smartmatic said. “This is a clear statement that the ballots are inconsistent and incompatible with the PCOS technology.”
Smartmatic Asia president Cesar Flores told GMA News Online in a phone interview:
“When we asked the NPO (about the 60 percent passing rate), it was acceptable. That means disenfranchisement of voters on election day.”
During the 2010 elections, Smartmatic was the winning bidder for the ballot paper as well as the PCOS machines, which will again be used in the 2013 elections.
Comelec spokesperson James Jimenez brushed off the accusations against the winning printer.
“Are we gonna step in on allegations of a losing bidder? That is unfair. But if the process of the ballots is shady, then we have to step in. But if all we have really are allegations of a losing bidder, then there are other processes that need to take precedence,” he said.
On Wednesday, the opposition bloc at the House of Representatives called for an investigation on the alleged irregularities in the printing of ballots to be used for next year’s elections.
Contacted for comment regarding the test runs, Holy Family lawyer Raymond Aquino said they were not informed that the sample ballots would be tested after they were declared winners in the bidding last Sept. 12.
"Supposedly during that day, hindi naman talaga dapat pinasok 'yan (balota). Since confident naman kami na complying kami sa requirement ng NPO, e di pumayag kami," Aquino told GMA News Online in a phone interview.
He added that their ballots were merely prototypes. “Testing lang naman 'yan eh. It could actually be enhanced later on."
Aquino also accused Smartmatic of refusing to divulge the specification of the paper needed to fit the PCOS machines, which was the reason they failed to cut the paper to the correct size.
"'Yung specs 'nung mismong machines, dineprive ng Smartmatic na ibigay sa mga bidders kasi sinasabi nilang sila lang ang may karapatan 'dun," the lawyer said.
But Smartmatic maintained that the specifications were stated in the bid documents.
Gene Arbatim, chief operating officer of the PLDT consortium, said they shot the video that showed Holy Family’s nine-inch ballots did not fit the machine.
“What happened there was that ballots were not the right size. That’s why on the video itself you can actually hear the machine cranking. They were trying to force the ballots into the machine,” Arbatim told GMA News Online.
But Sylvia Banda of the NPO Bids and Awards Committee denied that their staff folded the ballots, saying they were merely smoothing them out.
“Kung natupi, uunatin mo. We’re not folding it. Inuunat lang,” she said.
She also said that the YouTube video was likely edited. “It did not show the entire process. Kumbaga, selected lang ‘yung mga dinampot nilang [clips]. ‘Yung mga pumalpak lang, pero ‘yung mga pumasa hindi nila pinakita,” Banda said.
The NPO official confirmed the 60-percent passing rate, but said the two sample ballots were scanned 10 times and not 15 times as Smartmatic had claimed.
Banda added that the evaluation test was not part of the bidding process, but merely a test run. “We would not be giving a ballot that was not read by the PCOS machine 100 percent,” she said, adding that the ballots printed by Holy Family would undergo rigorous test runs.
Second test of 1,000 ballots
After the second test run of 1,000 ballots on October 11, Comelec chairman Sixto Brillantes Jr. said all the ballots were accepted. “Pina-test namin uli ‘yung 1,000, pumasok lahat,” he told reporters.
But the losing bidders claimed that seven of those ballots were rejected by the PCOS machine. “They refused to show that it’s not true. We and the other company were recording the testing. And we can swear in an affidavit that it was not so,” Smartmatic’s Flores said.
Raul Nagrampa, assistant director of the NPO, said the bidders were probably referring to the spoiled ballots.
“Ang nangyari pinasok ang balota, pero merong remarks d’un sa PCOS machine na ambiguous markings. ‘Yung sample voters namin hindi maayos yung pag-shade, which is actually what happens during the day of the elections… So it’s not rejected. Hindi lang na-record nang maayos,” he explained.
“Hindi sa hindi binasa. Binasa pero sinabi na may ambiguous marks. Ang reject kasi iniluwa,” Nagrampa said.
’Brouhaha’ from losing bidders
Flores accused the NPO of giving wrong information to the Comelec. “I truly believe that the Comelec is not aware of what’s going on. They are in very good faith to trust the NPO. But clearly the NPO is violating the rules,” said the Smartmatic head.
But Nagrampa denied the allegation, saying that the memorandum of agreement it signed with the poll body requires the NPO to be transparent at all times.
“Even ‘yung delivery ng machines rito should be known sa Comelec,” he said. “They said they have an obligation to the political parties to announce that these activities are happening right now.”
The NPO official said Smartmatic was making a big fuss about the test run because it lost the bid. “(Smartmatic) has the machines. That’s why they are confident, that’s why they are creating all this brouhaha,” Nagrampa said.
Aquino agreed, saying: "Ang pinaka-reason dyan dahil nga siguro natalo sila, so they're making these allegations against Holy Family."
According to Banda of the NPO’s Bids and Awards Committee, Smartmatic failed to qualify for the single largest contract because their services for the 2010 elections only involved supply of ballot paper and other consumables.
NPO requires bidders to have experience in security printing, which involves data that need to be secured.
Meanwhile, the PLDT consortium also failed to get the bid because the NPO did not consider its printing of envelopes, which is used for the bills and payments of the telecommunications company’s consumers, as security printing. — KBK/YA, GMA News