Villar: Buy more vote counting machines, add polling precincts

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Metro Manila (CNN Philippines, June 3) — The government should procure additional vote counting machines so voters can be dispersed to more polling precincts in 2022, Senator Cynthia Villar said Thursday.

She made the statement in response to concerns raised by a Commission on Elections official during a Senate hearing that the poll body may be forced to assign 1,000 voters per clustered precinct, instead of the ideal 500 or lower, due to the limited number of VCMs.

"Sa (In the) Palawan plebiscite, it’s only 200 maximum per clustered precinct," COMELEC Deputy Executive Director for Operations Teopisto Elnas, Jr. said during the Senate committee on electoral reforms hearing on the preparations for the May 2022 general elections.

He was referring to the plebiscite held in March where the voters rejected the bid to split Palawan into three. It's now being used in crafting policies for next year's polls.

"This time meron kaming... medyo problema dahil with the national and local elections and the limited number of VCMs available na gagamitin so mapipilitan kami na babalik kami sa 1,000 voters per clustered precinct," he added.

[Translation: This time, we have a bit of a problem because with the national and local elections and the limited number of VCMs available, we would be forced to revert to 1,000 voters per clustered precinct.]

The official said the country has 97,000 VCMs to date. Villar replied, the government still has time to buy more VCMs.

"Edi bumili, may time pa naman bumili. Kaysa mapostpone ang election at magkagulo ang election, bumili na lang," she said.

[Translation: Buy, there's still more time to buy. Instead of postponing the election and risk having a disorderly election, let's just buy.]

Elnas said he will raise this with the COMELEC's steering committee for the 2022 polls. He stressed that a number of factors have to be considered, including the bidding process and availability of funds.

Senator Imee Marcos, chair of the electoral reforms committee, said it's not the time to be stingy, since elections are important for democracy.

COMELEC is eyeing extended voting hours, from 8 to 10, or even 12 hours, to avoid crowding in precincts amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

READ: COMELEC says extended voting hours ‘almost sure’ in 2022 elections

But Villar believes the only way to conduct a one-day election period is to add polling precincts.

"Hindi talaga magagwa with this kind of (health) protocol na matapos ang eleksyon on the same day, dapat yata damihan ang presinto," Villar said.

[Translation: We really can't finish the elections on the same day with this kind of health protocol. We have to add precincts.]

The Ateneo School of Government's Political Participation for Greater Electoral Integrity or PARTICIPATE estimates that the country would need an additional ₱10 billion to "COVID-proof" the elections, or implement the necessary health and safety protocols, based on a study of other polls held amid the pandemic.

The amount will be "in addition to what we are normally spending in order to just conduct safe, free, and fair elections," said Ateneo School of Government dean Dr. Ronald Mendoza.