Comelec to lease 94,000 new machines for 2016 elections

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The government will be leasing around 94,000 new optical mark reader (OMR) machines from Smartmatic.

Metro Manila (CNN Philippines) — The Commission on Elections (Comelec) announced on Thursday (August 13) that it would be leasing an entire set of vote-counting machines for the 2016 elections — because it ran out of time to refurbish the machines used in past polls.

So for those voting next year, they will be feeding ballots into a machine called an optical mark reader (OMR) — to distinguish it from its older cousin, the precinct count optical scan (PCOS) — which will not be used in the next general elections.

The OMR has the same technology as the PCOS.

A voter shades circles on the ballot and the machine scans it. But the OMR runs on a newer software.

The government will be leasing around 94,000 new OMRs — from Smartmatic.

The price tag: at least P7.9 billion.

Comelec took long making the decision — because there was a cheaper option:  to refurbish the 82,000 old PCOS for P3 billion, and lease only 23,000 new OMR machines.

That would have only cost the government around P5 billion.

It can be recalled that Comelec set that option in motion in December last year — and hired Smartmatic to refurbish the PCOS without a public bidding.

Comelec's reason: Smartmatic manufactured the PCOS.

But the Supreme Court blocked the deal in April this year — and ordered the poll body  to put the refurbishment project up for public bidding.

A bidding was opened in June — but there were no takers for the refurbishment.

Meanwhile, the poll body also bid out a project to lease another set of 71,000 new OMR machines — as a back-up, in case the PCOS refurbishment fell through.

Smartmatic landed the deal for the 71,000 OMRs — along with the first 23,000 in the original plan.

But Comelec did not give up on refurbishment just yet. It opened another bidding on August 1.

Only one company showed up — but it did not qualify for the project.

Comelec faced a dilemma: go with the backup plan of leasing 94,000 all-new machines or directly hire a contractor for the refurbishment, since the law allows direct contracting after two failed public biddings.

Comelec did not say which company they tried for this — but Smartmatic said the poll body met with them earlier this week.

Now, Smartmatic told CNN Philippines that they would not have been able to deliver the refurbished machines on the Comelec's deadline in January — but they can have all 94,000 new machines ready by then.

Related: Of voting machines and the 2016 elections

Behind schedule, Comelec finally made up its mind.

"In conclusion, after exhaustive consultation with stakeholders and with due consideration of the current circumstances — particularly issues relating to cost, timeliness and technical risk — the Commission unanimously decided to choose the more prudent approach of leasing all new 93,000 machines for the 2016 elections," said Comelec Chairman Andres "Andy" Bautista.

The supplier for those machines, Smartmatic, is now negotiating with Comelec for the contracts.

As for the old PCOS machines, Comelec said they would be refurbished and used for the 2019 mid-term elections.