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Citizens and Poll Workers Declare First Automated Elections in Philippines a Success, but Flaws Remain

August 4, 2010

Last week, two separate quantitative studies on the May 10 elections underscored the striking gains demonstrated by automating the elections; however, evidence remains of serious deficiencies in the electoral process. Some entertain more fundamental doubts, but survey readings of the opinions of ordinary voters, systematic study of the experience of poll workers, and an official parallel “random manual audit” all show gains.

Automated elections in the Philippines

June SWS surveys declared the first automated elections in the Philippines a success, despite some glitches with the new scanning machines, above.

Social Weather Stations, the leading non-governmental polling organization in the Philippines, on July 28 released the results of June surveys sponsored by The Asia Foundation on experience of both citizens and (separately) poll workers, known as BEIs (for Board of Election Inspectors). Citizen satisfaction with the general conduct of elections jumped from the low 50s for the 2004 and 2007 elections to 75 percent in 2010. The believability of results for senator, congressional representative, governor, and mayor all increased. Judgment that the Commission on Elections (COMELEC) had honestly counted the votes leapt from 55 percent after the 2007 elections to 83 percent in 2010. In short, belief that there had been “cheating at some level, not limited to the precinct level” dropped from 47 percent in 2007 to (a still worrisome) 34 percent in 2010. The Filipino electorate’s stubborn adherence to elections (77 percent think that “elections are a good way of making the government pay attention to what the people think”) seems vindicated.

The results of a separate scientific sample survey of 480 BEIs parallel the data about citizen opinion. Satisfaction with the general conduct of the elections went up from 78 percent in 2007 to 90 percent in 2010. Eighty-four percent of these polling place workers said that the 2010 elections were better than the 2007 elections.

On July 29 a technical working group (which included the Parish Pastoral Council for Responsible Voting and the National Statistical Office) released to the media the results of the Random Manual Audit. The Manual Audit was accomplished by randomly selecting five precincts from each of the 229 legislative districts (a total of 1,145 precincts) on election day and sending special teams of BEIs to those precincts. The ballot boxes were opened, and votes counted by hand to compare the tally produced by the Precinct Count Optical Scan (PCOS) machines and automatically transmitted to canvassing stations. The result of the re-count showed a 99.6 percent accuracy. The most significant problem found was in one precinct in Manila, where the scanned images of the ballots had a line through them that was not on the original ballots – possibly caused by physical contamination in the scanner, which caused some discrepancies in the vote count for mayor of that city. While this provided fodder for the election protest of a losing candidate in that contest, the COMELEC adjudged the accuracy within the 99 percent range overall.

This is not to say that the election process was flawless. In particular, buying of votes was rampant, with 15 percent of voters saying they personally witnessed it and 24 percent saying they heard about it from reliable sources. This dovetails with the report of the election watchdog group, National Movement for Free Elections (NAMFREL), which in its terminal report on the May elections discussed how vote-buying seemed to have been shifted from “wholesale” (affecting how votes were counted and aggregated) to “retail” influence of individual voters.

Still, the May 2010 elections represented a distinct improvement over the past. 65 percent of citizens felt that the use of the PCOS machines lessened cheating in the counting of votes. It seems that this is true even in the most challenging of situations. In Maguindanao, where the infamous massacre took place last November 2009, the clan head of the alleged perpetrators, Datu Andal Ampatuan, ran for vice governor. He was defeated by neophyte Ismael Mastura, who was the running mate of victorious candidate (now governor) Esmael Mangudadatu, whose relatives were the victims of the massacre. Vice Governor Mastura said that he would never have beaten Datu Andal without the speed of electronic counting of votes and transmission of votes, which prevented all post-election cheating.

Steven Rood is The Asia Foundation’s Country Representative for the Philippines and Pacific Island Nations. He can be reached at srood@asiafound.org.

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