There are those who firmly believe that the Commission on Elections has no other choice but to conduct all future Philippine elections, including the ARMM election,  in an “automated” manner. The authority cited for this belief is the last sentence of  Section 5, Republic Act (RA) No. 8436 (as amended by Section 6, RA 9369), which states “..(i)n succeeding regular national and local elections, the AES (Automated Election System) shall be implemented nationwide.

This is not how I see it. I believe that RA 8436, as amended by RA 9369, merely gives COMELEC the authority “to use an automated election system or systems in the same election in different provinces, whether paper-based or a direct recording electronic election system as it may deem appropriate and practical for the process of voting, counting of votes and canvassing/consolidation and transmittal of results of electoral exercises” (Sec. 5, RA 8436, as amended). It other words, COMELEC is merely given by law the discretion to prescribe “the adoption and use of the most suitable technology of demonstrated capability taking into account the situation prevailing in the area and the funds available for the purpose” (Sec. 1, RA 8436, as amended by RA 9369). The law does not constrain COMELEC to adopt “automated elections” only.

Thus, it is possible under existing election laws to have fully “automated” processes from voting to counting up to vote transmission and result consolidation, as it is possible to “automate” only certain stages of the process  like what happened in the 2010 elections. In said election, although voting was “manual,” the counting, transmission, and result consolidation processes were “automated.” Stretching it further, it is still possible to have a full “manual” process, as what was adopted in the recent 2010 Barangay (Village) and Sangguniang Kabataan (Youth Council) elections.  Theoretically therefore, future Philippine elections can still be fully manual, as it is likewise possible that they can be fully automated. Similarly, elections can be only partially automated and partially manual.

The portion of Section 5, RA 8436, cited above that seems to require all future regular elections to be “automated” nationwide should be construed in the context of the phased implementation of the law. RA 9369 was supposed to be implemented in the May 2007 election but because the law was passed only in January 2007, COMELEC was allowed in said election to automate only in certain constituencies. The cited portion, to me, is merely intended to emphasize that the law has a nationwide application. It does not contradict the real intent of the legislation.

The essence of RAs 8436 and 9369 is to give COMELEC reasonable flexibility to choose from among the available election systems, given the prevailing situation and context, as well as the resources available. The authority allowing COMELEC to be flexible in its choice of the system to be used in an election,  is a welcome departure from the rigid requirements of the Omnibus Election Code (Batas Pambansa (BP)  Blg. 881 (1985)). BP 881  legislated in detail the procedures for preparing and for running elections, effectively preventing election managers from responding adequately to unforeseen situations, or from using tools of modern technology to make the processes more efficient. The grant of flexibility is a positive development, but interpreting the law to mean that future elections can only be “automated” is contrary to the legislative intent, which is to grant COMELEC reasonable flexibility in performing its job.

In any case, RA 9369 imposes certain standards and conditions that must be used by COMELEC in choosing a system. First, is the adoption of  an “appropriate technology” for an election, which simply means that it should be a technology that is suited to the Philippine context. The power and telecommunication infrastructure in the area should be considered. The readiness and the acceptability by the voters and the candidates  of the system to be adopted, which are  essential to giving credibility to the election results, must likewise be considered. The resources that the country can spare for a modernized electoral process is also an important consideration. It can never be justified to sacrifice basic social services in favor of a fancier election system in the allocation of usually limited state funds. Second, RA 9369  itself specifies the minimum requirements for the technology to be chosen  (Section 7). Third, an Advisory Council composed of technology experts must also advise COMELEC in its choice of technology and system and that a Technical Evaluation Committee must assess the readiness of the election system chosen before it is actually used.

In the end, the most crucial factor in choosing the most appropriate election technology is the capacity and competence of the COMELEC in making its choice. It should be able to make well-studied and independent assessment of what election system is to be used. It should be able to run elections using the chosen system and decide on crucial policy issues independent of what the technology suppliers would say. The Commissioners themselves must have at least  minimum knowledge of modern election technology to enable them to competently decide on important policy issues. The COMELEC bureaucracy should have enough technology competent personnel so as not to make the institution rely too much on outside help, including those coming from technology suppliers.  It is COMELEC that is ultimately responsible and accountable for the choice of the election system and the credibility of the election results.

In March 2008, I wrote an article on the applicability of RA 9369 in the then upcoming August 2008 ARMM elections. Though the 2011 ARMM election is effectively postponed, this article may find some use in understanding the use of election technology in ARMM. I am gladly sharing  the article to those who may be interested. Please just click this link