Comelec to buy Smartmatic's vote counting machines for 2019 polls

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Metro Manila (CNN Philippines, February 1) — The Commission on Elections (Comelec) is buying over 97,000 vote counting machines from poll technology provider Smartmatic.

More than a year before the May 2019 midterm elections, the poll body has decided to purchase the VCMs it leased during the 2016 presidential polls, Comelec Spokesperson James Jimenez said Thursday.

"Basically what happened was the commission decided that it would be in the best interest of the electoral system kung bibilhin na lang natin yung mga makinang nirentahan natin nung nakaraang halalan (if we will just buy the machines we rented during the previous elections)," Jimenez told CNN Philippines in a phone interview. 

The Comelec will buy the machines for P2.21 billion. For the 2016 polls, it spent around P8 billion to lease the machines for the first time.

"Malaki ang tinipid natin kasi nga nalease na natin siya (We are saving a lot of money because we already leased the machines) before and we're just basically getting the ones that we rented before," Jimenez said.

He said all sitting commissioners voted unanimously in December 2017 to purchase Smartmatic's VCMs. By that time, former Chair Andres Bautista has resigned from his post and was replaced by Acting Chairman Robert Lim.

Related: Malacañang: Bautista's resignation 'effective immediately'

Contrary to earlier news reports, Jimenez said there was no renewal of contract, but an "activation of the option to purchase (OTP)," an option in the deal that expired on January 8, 2018.

Jimenez dismissed speculations of a "midnight deal," after news of Comelec's decision broke out yesterday, days before Lim's retirement. He said there was no public bidding or notice required in the transaction since  it is part of an existing contract that already went through bidding.

The Comelec is requiring Smartmatic to enhance the voter receipts for security purposes. Under the contract, Smartmatic should shoulder these expenses.

"There are a lot of enhancements that we are getting for free because we exercised the OTP," Jimenez pointed out. 

He said the P8 billion budget given by the Department of Budget and Management would not be enough to cover all expenses in the 2019 elections if new machines are bought.

The Comelec Advisory Council, a group that recommends the best technology for the election process, reported in August 2016 that Smartmatic's VCMs were "performing well" and recommended to reuse them, Jimenez said.

Venezuelan company Smartmatic has been supplying automated machines to the government since the 2010 elections. The government continues to use its services despite allegations that it altered the source code of VCMs in the 2013 national elections, and fed a suspicious new script or computer command to the Comelec's transparency server during the transmission and counting of election returns in 2016.

RELATED: Smartmatic: Vote-counting machines are foolproof