Philippines vote machines work after rushed repair

Machines that will count votes in the Philippines presidential election next week worked accurately after last-minute repairs, but tallies still may be delayed in the most far-flung areas of the archipelago, officials said Thursday.

A glitch in the optical counting machines’ memory cards raised fears of a chaotic failure of the country’s first electronic presidential polls, and officials have repeatedly tried to stamp out rumors that Monday’s vote would be delayed.

The Commission on Elections recalled memory cards sent to 76,300 precincts after the failures were detected Monday, and the supplier promised replacements in time for the vote. Private corporations loaned helicopters and planes for rush deliveries around the island nation.

The glitch has fed suspicion of vote-rigging in the election. Scattered political violence has already claimed dozens of lives before 50 million Filipino voters elect a new president, vice president and officials to fill nearly 18,000 national and local posts.

Since the repairs, vote-counting machines in three cities and a town in metropolitan Manila worked “100 percent accurately” halfway through new tests on Thursday, said Cesar Flores, Asia-Pacific regional head for the machine supplier, Venezuela-based Smartmatic.

“It appears that our prayers are being answered,” Commission on Elections Chairman Jose Melo told a news conference.

The replacement memory cards may be delivered late Monday in 4,192 of the country’s precincts, the commission said. About 3.3 million people in those far-flung areas can cast their vote anytime but their ballots can only be fed to the counting machines once the memory cards arrive several hours later, commission spokesman James Jimenez said.

“That’s the worst-case scenario, but they can vote,” Jimenez said. Unofficials results of the vote are expected to be known two to three days after the balloting.

Flores said he was ready to face a possible investigation but Smartmatic’s focus was to ensure successful polls. The company previously said the card glitch was caused by human error and not sabotage.

He refused to say how costly the mistake was for Smartmatic, the private consortium that won a 7.2 billion peso ($160 million) contract to supply the counting machines nationally.

“We are not counting money now, we have an election to save,” Flores said. “It was a stupid mistake with huge consequences.”

Opposition Sen. Benigno Aquino III, who has topped election surveys, has warned that any delay in the election could result in “a potentially disastrous crisis of a leadership vacuum” when President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo steps down on June 30.

Aquino blasted election officials for mishandling the vote-count automation and suggested they should resign. “Their efforts have so far only yielded disastrous results,” he told reporters.

Ousted President Joseph Estrada, who has placed second in the surveys, backed a postponement but said it should not be long enough to allow Arroyo, his political nemesis, to possibly plot to extend her tumultuous term.

Under the constitution, Arroyo must hand over the presidency because of term limits, and her aides have repeatedly said she would do so.

The problem intensified calls by many groups for a manual count of votes for at least five top posts, including president, vice president, House members, governors and mayors. The commission last week rejected the proposal.

Associated Press