Philippines Prescription: Computerized Elections

Dennis Posadas says it's time for the Philippines to take a digital step to curb fraud

By Dennis Posadas
AsiaMedia Contributing Writer

Friday, June 1, 2007

Manila --- The Philippines is a country where ballot boxes have as many as eleven padlocks, so that keys can be held by opposing groups. This is perhaps the best symbol of the mistrust that pervades elections here. It is a country where there are no losers -- only victors and the ones they cheated.

Aside from being slow -- even if there aren't legal protests, it takes a few weeks for votes to be counted by hand and winners to be proclaimed -- elections in the Philippines have always been bloody and fraud-prone. This month's mid-term election saw more than a hundred people killed, including two teachers who were burned when a schoolhouse containing ballots was torched. As foreign and local observers will attest, while fraud was less than it has been in previous years, there were still brazen attempts to manipulate the results.

At what locals call "the retail level," the fraud is direct. Votes are bought outright from the poor populace, or voters known to have sympathies for opposing candidates suddenly find that they are no longer in the list of registered voters in their precincts. Sometimes popular candidates are thwarted by people with similar names who run as "nuisance candidates" to confuse the electorate. Or there is simply fraud by force: Goons and private armies snatch ballot boxes, kill opponents, torch schoolhouses or replace real ballots with fake ones. Some creative minds have taken retail fraud to new heights: A fake newspaper appeared in the province of Pampanga on election day with a report on one of the candidates of alleged wrongdoings.

But over the years, cheating has become more systematic and sophisticated. On "the wholesale level" fraud happens by simple modifications of figures -- 4,995 for Candidate A becomes 14,995 on the hand-written paper Certificate of Canvas. The weakness of the manual system, aside from the fact that it is slow, is that too many people have to do their work properly for the system to work correctly. Therein lies the vulnerability of the manual system of counting.

The Philippines has suffered greatly from perceived fraud in previous elections. Accusations that President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo rigged the 2004 elections damaged the political landscape and the economy. The scandal was popularly called "Hello Garci?," for then Election Commissioner Virgilio Garcillano. It hinged on a recording of a phone call President Arroyo made to Garcillano, allegedly to improperly check on her votes. After an unsuccessful impeachment attempt by the lower house of Congress, cooperation between the Arroyo administration and the Senate became virtually non-existent.

This kind of stalemate between the executive and the opposition-controlled Senate can no longer be afforded by the Philippines. While citizen watchdogs like the National Movement for Free Elections (NAMFREL) should be admired for their steadfast dedication, the time has come to end the Philippines' Rube Goldberg method of manual elections. Looking beyond Arroyo to the 2010 general elections, the only way for the Philippines to progress is through clean elections.

If the Philippines wishes to move forward, the prescription is simple: It must computerize its electoral process, and permanently retire the multiple-padlock ballot box to the dustbin of history. It's not a total solution, but it is an important step to minimizing wholesale fraud and the weeks of uncertainty that come with votes being counted by hand.

The views expressed above are those of the author and are not necessarily those of AsiaMedia or the UCLA Asia Institute.