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COMMENTARY
The 4th G to guns, goons, gold: Glitches

By Michael Tan
Philippine Daily Inquirer
First Posted 04:23:00 05/11/2010

Filed Under: Eleksyon 2010, Inquirer Politics, Elections, Computing & Information Technology

Based on reports on television and in the Inquirer, the 2010 elections continued to be marred by the curse of the three Gs: Guns, goons and gold.

There were assassinations and armed terrorism, as well as vote buying. ?Hot spots? were identified months before the elections, with larger deployments of police and military, but these were still not enough?a sad reminder that 110 years after we began to vote for our leaders, there are still parts of the country almost totally controlled by feudal warlords.

This year, though, there was a fourth ?G? that marred voting in many parts of the country?technical glitches from our first fully automated elections.

The computerization was supposed to transform the whole electoral process, making it more rapid and efficient and cutting down on electoral fraud. But it also generated fears and anxieties.

It was a day of glitches great and small, the most common being ballots that could not be read by the machines. Some of the scanning problems came about, ironically, from the voting process itself.

In some precincts, voters? fingerprints were taken before they could vote, and if the inked thumbs smeared the ballot, there was a high chance it could no longer be read.

Other voters couldn?t shade their choices properly, or had accidental markings while working out the ballot. There were no replacement ballots: One vote and that was it.

Machines breaking down

There are no statistics yet on just how many ballots were accidentally invalidated, but each lost vote actually violates a voter?s constitutional right.

Other glitches were more serious, mainly PCOS machines breaking down. As I file this report, there?s no way of knowing how the canvassing will go, including proper recording to the controversial memory cards, and whether they can be electronically transmitted from some of our more remote barangays and sitios.

I spent most of the afternoon at GMA 7 studios waiting to be interviewed together with Lito Averia of Automated Election System (AES) Watch and with Roan Libarios of the Legal Network for Truthful Elections (Lente), and our conversations were interrupted every few minutes by new reports of problems, mainly with the computerization process.

Security risk

The impression I had was that many of the problems were to be expected with voters, as well as the precinct staff, still not used to the new technologies.

Voting was very slow and the Commission on Elections had to extend the voting hours, which then raises the risks of an older problem?security.

No matter how minor the glitches are, they could add up and lead to accusations of electoral fraud. Elections for local officials are notorious for being disputed, and the computerization process could mean more of contested results.

At the national level, the credibility of the entire process is even more crucial because the results will determine how we move into a post-Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo era, if at all.

We are a nation weary of ?people power? as a means for changing leaders, and therefore the election results become even more important for a peaceful and orderly transition of power.

The many technical glitches being reported do worry me, but I am more inclined to be optimistic about the outcome because I see a robust democracy continuing to evolve.

In many countries, even more ?advanced? countries in the west, citizens have lost interest in elections or see it mainly as one act, that of casting a ballot.

The Philippines is showing that elections mean more than voting.

One big fiesta

Western observers often write of our elections rather frivolously, seeing the process as one big fiesta where people are wined, dined and bribed, and then, after the feasting, thrown into famine by neglectful politicians.

In the Philippines, precisely because of the many threats to our democracy, we have developed, even if often rather turbulently, an entire process that has led to an unprecedented participation of the majority of Filipinos.

We forget that it was a nation tired of ?lutong Macoy? (cooked) elections during the Marcos dictatorships that put up the National Citizens? Movement for Free Elections (Namfrel), the country?s first electoral watchdog body, whose parallel canvassing of the 1985 election?based on a nationwide corps of volunteers?exposed the fraud in the government?s canvassing.

In the end, it was the government?s own computer encoders, instructed to tamper with the election returns, who walked out of the Philippine International Convention Center in the middle of the canvassing to expose and protest the fraud.

People power followed shortly after, bringing down the dictatorship.

Namfrel was rudimentary, its engine mainly voluntarism and courage. Today, elections take new meanings, people playing a role even in the selection of candidates, as in the pressures to get Benigno ?Noynoy? Aquino III to run.

Once passive observers

In the not too distant past, we would vote and return to our homes. We were mainly passive observers to the painfully slow manual canvassing and collation of electoral returns, the excitement of the first few days wearing off and the proclamation of winners coming only after months.

Today, all kinds of new electoral groups have emerged, such as Lente (which includes training in legal processes and a referral system for reports of electoral fraud), using digital technologies as part of election vigilance.

There are also the media initiatives like ABS-CBN?s Boto Mo I-Patrol Mo and GMA 7?s youscoop.tv.

While at GMA 7?s studio, I also watched several dozen students from AMA taking reports of ?incidents? from throughout the country.

New technologies

Even overseas Filipinos can now monitor elections through the major media networks? websites, with streaming videos.

Digital technologies, from cell phones to social media, have redefined political engagements. Young Filipinos have developed new ways of tapping these new technologies to educate other young people on the issues and getting them out to vote.

While concentrated in urban areas, and still limited to a large extent to those in schools, the members of this digital generation are inheriting the fruits of the vigilance of previous generations of Filipinos even as they reshape today?s digital technologies to strengthen the electoral processes of the future and our democratic institutions.

We?ve come a long way

I voted in Xavier School in San Juan, Metro Manila, where the turnout reminded me of how far we?ve gone with this democratic exercise.

The first election in the Philippines with direct voting was held exactly 110 years ago, on May 6, 1899, in Baliuag, Bulacan.

It was a municipal election supervised by the Americans. Baliuag?s website boasts it was a first, not just for the Philippines but for the Far East.

We?ve come a long way since that election, where voting was done through a show of hands rather than by secret written ballot.

To qualify to vote, you had to be male, at least 23 years old, a taxpayer (which meant you had to own land), speak, read and write Spanish or English, and swear allegiance to the United States of America.

Through the years, the qualifications for voters have been modified, albeit gradually. Women didn?t get the right to vote until 1937. The minimum age dropped down slowly, to 18.

Today, even convicts can vote (and run) in elections.

All walks of life

When I got to Xavier shortly after 7, there were large crowds of early bird voters. They came from all walks of life, and rich or poor, they fell in line for their turn.

I could hear all sorts of Philippine languages, as well as English and Chinese (reflecting the large Chinese-Filipino community in San Juan).

The whole age spectrum was represented, with the elderly getting preferential treatment and allowed to skip the queue. It was a gracious gesture, almost a way of extending tribute to the Filipinos who value the right to vote, even if they have to come in wheelchairs.

I also noticed many more people with disabilities coming to vote. GMA 7 had a particularly touching video footage showing a group of blind people making their way to a precinct (which turned out to be the wrong one, so they had to go on to another polling site).

Future elections could give more attention to the needs of these segments of the population, including making provisions for facilitated access, as well as assistance during the voting itself.

Real heroes

I know, of course, that the situation in Xavier was probably not typical. I got text messages from friends, complaining of the usual problems of names missing from voters? lists, difficulties finding precincts and long lines that didn?t seem to be moving.
Through all these trials and tribulations, the heroes and heroines of the day were the precinct workers, including some who took the usual barrage of irate, even abusive, language from impatient voters.



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