The Cost Of ‘Covid-Proofing’ PH’s Most Expensive Elections

MANILA, Philippines – The 2022 elections will be the most costly in history, as the Commission on Elections (Comelec) tries to prevent COVID-19 from spreading when more than 65 million Filipinos vote on May 9.

According to a budget study by the Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism (PCIJ) for the years 2021 and 2022, the government allocated P38.23 billion to Comelec to prepare for and supervise the future elections.


According to PCIJ’s evaluation of authorized agency budgets for 2022, the Comelec placed 16th among national agencies with the greatest allocation. It beat out the departments of environment and natural resources, justice, and science.


Expenses for the preparation (2021 budget) and administration (2022 budget) of the national and local elections (NLE) took the biggest chunk of the commission’s budget, at 63% or about P24.1 billion. This was a 19.5% hike from the Comelec’s budget for the same items in 2015 and 2016. The amount did not include the budgets for overseas and Sangguniang Kabataan polls.


Much of the increase stems from COVID-19-related expenses and professional services fees for all workers involved in running the elections on May 9.


Pandemic supplies bloat election budget.


Comelec requested at least P1.5 billion for the purchase of anti-COVID supplies for every clustered precinct on election day, including face masks, alcohol, plastic acetates, and antigen testing for poll officers who would have attended training, according to its 2021 and 2022 Annual Procurement Plans.


Election watchdog Legal Network for Truthful Elections (Lente) said Comelec took recommendations after the Palawan plebiscite in 2021 when gaps during the electoral process became apparent.


“What we saw in the Palawan plebiscite, kulang talaga ‘yung support staff and medical personnel deployed…. But the Comelec budget was slashed…so na-retain ay COVID-19 supplies,” Lente executive director Rona Ann Caritos told PCIJ in an interview.


(The deployed support staff and medical personnel was lacking… But the Comelec budget was slashed…so COVID-19 supplies were retained.)


Comelec initially sought a P41.92-billion budget for 2022, but it was trimmed by the Department of Budget and Management to P26 billion, the amount approved by Congress.


Apart from COVID-19 supplies, Comelec also dedicated funds for the professional fees of national and local election workers. It increased the honorarium of election workers by P1,000 more than what they received in the 2019 polls.


According to the budget given by Comelec to the House of Representatives Committee of Appropriations in August 2021, professional fees were allotted at least P9.9 billion, or 26% of the entire spending.


The chair of the electoral board and its members, the Department of Education Supervising Official (DESO), support staff, and medical professionals are among the election workers. Except for medical staff, who were recruited as part of Comelec’s COVID-19 preventative measures, all other election workers have been present in every election.


On election day, one medical professional will supervise the isolation polling site, a temporary chamber or tent that will be set up in every voting center where voters with a temperature of 37.5 degrees Celsius or above will be allowed to vote.


However, election workers were required to complete a series of training courses before election day. For these efforts, Comelec set aside P4.2 billion, or 11% of its entire budget.


According to former Comelec Commissioner Luie Guia, the training is critical for a well-run election because the officers would be operating the vote-counting machines (VCMs) on election day.


“You have to invest a lot of money if you want your electoral board to be fully conversant [with the system]… you have to have a comprehensive training module and a lot of trainers,” he added.


In 2019, 6 out of 10 Smartmatic-supplied voter registration verification machines, or VRVMs, failed or were never utilized. According to Comelec spokesperson James Jimenez, personnel in charge of the polls did not seem to recall the concepts learned in training.


According to a PCIJ study, the Comelec was compelled to revise the general instructions on how to operate VRVMs due to a technical oversight by the machine’s supplier, rendering training “nugatory” or ineffective.


 Automated Election System purchases


Such mishaps have made the procurement of Automated Election System (AES)-related purchases a big story during the elections.


The poll body had initially planned to pay for the refurbishment of 97,345 units of VCMs and other consumables. But after the public bidding failed, Comelec hiked the bid price to P864 million from P600 million, which also included the lease of 10,000 more VCMs.


The additional VCMs are supposed to help the poll body set up more than 100,000 precincts nationwide, with an average of 800 voters per precinct come election day. This was 20% less than the average ratio of voters assigned for every precinct in the 2019 elections.


Election watchdogs have so far been satisfied with how the poll body chose to spend its budget as the whole country votes for the first time during a pandemic, even as the Comelec initially aimed to lower the average ratio to 600 voters per precinct.


“The election, if not well handled, might be a super-spreader event. So the P1 billion budget for COVID-related supplies for 2022 is still acceptable,” said Lito Averia, treasurer of election monitor National Citizens’ Movement for Free Elections (Namfrel).


Caritos agreed, calling the budget a “qualified response” to the need to keep voters safe on election day from COVID-19.


“The Comelec preparations to safeguard the safety of all stakeholders in this election given the pandemic,” she said


(You can see the Comelec’s preparations to safeguard the safety of all stakeholders in this election in light of the pandemic, but the implementation budget is different.)


Meeting Budget Performance Targets


The national government uses a performance-informed budgeting structure, which mandates government agencies to include the purpose of their proposed funds, from the outputs they commit to deliver to the outcomes to be achieved. Agencies must also include the cost breakdown of their programs, activities, and projects.


The poll body managed to exceed two out of three applicable outcome indicators in its 2020 budget, as part of its election administration program: an increase in new voter registrants and the cleanup of 0.13% of the database of registered voters. It fell short of the target to increase by 24.5% the number of electoral protests resolved within an election cycle, as it recorded an increase of only 22.33%.


For 2022, some of Comelec’s targets include increasing voter turnout in the three elections to be held this year: national and local elections (from 78% to 82%), barangay polls (from 70% to 73%), and Sangguniang Kabataan elections (from 65% to 85%).


The poll body managed to exceed its target to increase the number of new voters. As of October 2021, the Comelec has recorded 7.9 million new registered voters, about double its initial target of four million.

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