NO, the Commission on Elections (Comelec) wasn’t describing the one activity many Filipinos think makes this country a democracy. It wasn’t mocking the elections over which it has oversight — although maybe it should have been.

What the Comelec did was conduct a trial run of the entire ballot-casting process, from the initialization of the Precinct Count Optical Scan (PCOS) machines to the transmission of votes from the precinct level to the municipal canvassing centers, then to the provincial canvassing centers, and finally, to the national Comelec computer server.

But whether mock elections or trial run, the test did bring to light some problems Comelec Chair Sixto Brillantes dismissed as “mere glitches,” and nothing to really worry about.

Obviously no tech-savvy computer maven, Brillantes attributed the failure of a PCOS machine at a precinct at the University of the Philippines Integrated School — one of 20 nationwide involved in the test — to the machine’s having been in storage for three years since the last time it was used in 2010, and the possibility that it was “rusty.” He also ventured the opinion that maybe what the machine needed was a longer warm-up period, somewhat like a basketball player who has to do a bit of calisthenics before getting into a game.

The glitches — including the machine’s rejection of the board of election inspectors chairperson’s password — occurred in the context of concerns among election watch groups over the Comelec’s purchase of the PCOS machines of the Smartmatic company, and their suggestion that maybe the Comelec should have looked around for another provider with a more technologically reliable device than Smartmatic’s machine.

While his observations about “rust” and “warming up” sounded like a joke, they did remind the voters of the election watch groups’ doubts about the reliability of the machines. What’s more, since he’s Comelec chair and should know what he’s talking about, his observations did seem authoritative, reviving The Question That Refuses to Die in connection with the country’s venture into automated elections: How Reliable Are The PCOS Machines, or, Can We Be Sure of the Automated System Results?

For his part, Comelec spokesperson James Jimenez stayed away from offering any technical reason for the glitches. Instead he suggested that one of the malfunctions the test revealed, the PCOS machine’s rejection of voter ballots, could have been due to “ballot mishandling” by the (mock) voters. You have to give it to Jimenez. That approach usually works. Don’t blame the technology or, for that matter, the Comelec. Blame the victim — the voter — instead.

Not that voters can’t be blamed for even worse errors, oversights, and plain cluelessness than failing to correctly feed a piece of paper into a machine. Voter readiness for every election ever held and will still be held in this country including the May 2013 elections is a far more crucial issue than the technology involved in the process.

Either the PCOS machines accurately record the results or they don’t. But exactly what difference would it make if a voter can’t tell the difference between one candidate and the next because there’s really none in most cases, and as a result cast his or her vote for no particularly meaningful reason?

This isn’t even to consider what happens in those areas the warlords control where votes-on-command are the rule. Granting the accuracy and reliability of the PCOS machines, the results in those places are likely to reflect, rather than the people’s will, the will of local tyrants — and of the national officials with whom they’re in alliance, or in some other way linked.

These problematic areas aside, the likelihood is that most voters will continue to behave as they have for years: they’re likely to vote on the basis of name recall. Name recall in turn depends on whether a candidate is well-known to begin with, or has made such an impression on the electorate that he or she is likely to be in the voter’s mind when the latter fills up his ballot.

In most cases, being well-known depends on whether the candidate is from a family whose members have been in government for some time, preferably as elected officials: in short, whether he or she belongs to that species known as political dynasties, or is from a family with a name no one knows.

As for the second alternative, the usual route to being remembered is by pandering to what are thought to be the voters’ expectations — among them the candidate’s capacity to attack his opponents in the most colorful, masa-friendly language possible, which means making sure that the audience is not bored by “serious” discussions; his readiness to act like a show business personality, which means singing and dancing; and, for a lucky few, just looking pretty on stage.

And then there’s the media factor. A huge election war chest guarantees media, especially radio and TV exposure, not only through paid political ads. The practice of interviewing candidates as if what they have to say matters as news, but who have paid off certain radio and TV stations for the privilege, has been more or less institutionalized, thus assuring the wealthiest candidates maximum media exposure. It does make money the determinant of election results, but only the naïve would expect the media organizations concerned to care enough to stop doing it.

The by now conventional solution offered to address these problems is voter education. There is no lack of advocacy groups focused on this necessity, their advice to voters usually being to demand from candidates what programs, if any, they intend to implement to address the issues — unemployment, rising prices, economic issues, human rights, etc. — that concern them.

Only in rare instances have such demands been met, most of the candidates for public office having no such programs, since what pass for platforms of government in the parties they happen to belong to at the moment consist of motherhood statements against which few can argue.

The result are elections that make it virtually impossible to select leaders armed with the vision and will to change anything, or even to make anything work — in which voter choices are almost never made on the basis of what the candidate and his party stand for, since neither really stands for anything except the quest for power and its perks.

Rather than resolving the complexities of automation, the very bottom line in any hope for meaningful elections is the making of truly informed choices. Philippine elections will continue to be mock elections otherwise.


Prof. Luis V. Teodoro is a former dean of the University of the Philippines College of Mass Communication, where he used to teach journalism. He writes political commentary for BusinessWorld.

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