Posted by: piom2010 | May 12, 2010

“To all those who didn’t vote or didn’t get to vote, the process was a failure”

By JOSEPH SMOOKE, PIOM Delegate

San Francisco, California, US

I am honored to have been a part of the PIOM’s international delegation to observe, assess, and report on these historic national Philippines elections. From each team, you will receive a comprehensive list of deviations from what the government described as being the planned, orderly process for these newly automated elections.

As an organizer, I know that we must evaluate each process, experience and interaction people have with issues, authoritative structures, and their associated processes to determine the resulting impacts of these events and experiences on the people who experience them—especially those who are impacted most but regarded the least by the prevailing powers.

I was stationed in the Payatas region of Quezon City alongside delegates from France, Canada, Australia, the US and of course a crew of dedicated advocates from the Philippines. What we observed leads me to the following analysis.

Context

In the shadow of one of Metro Manila’s towering garbage dump sites which slid in 2000 killing approximately 330 people, Payatas is a community that has been developed by those who can not afford to live in Metro Manila even though many of its residents work in various businesses or are self employed throughout Metro Manila. The hard work of the Payatas residents carved livable areas out of the steep and densely vegetated hillsides nearby the dump site. Residents of Payatas with whom we talked most extensively settled in Payatas in the 1980’s prior to the expansion of the Payatas dump site which started in 1994. The expansion of the dump site led to a tremendous growth of the population of Payatas as Manila’s poor moved here to mine the dump site for usable and sellable refuse. As the area became more populated, Quezon City built roads which have helped to facilitate access to this area. Now, there is a golf course nearby and rumors that Quezon City is encouraging developers to look at Payatas for residential and mall development (with the developer perhaps being the ubiquitous Shoe Mart “SM”). If such development does in fact happen, current residents who made this area livable by building an infrastructure, although spotty and inconsistent, of stepped streets, water wells, electricity, plumbing, and residential structures may suffer the indignity of displacement as the reward for their decades of hard work. This community, therefore, already has a deeply held distrust of the prevailing government at all levels as the current government does very little or nothing (depending on the area of need) to provide for their health, education, housing, or economic stability.

Observations

    1. The congregation of precincts into consolidated polling places no doubt made for more efficient administration of the elections, and also facilitated our observations of these elections, but for people like those who live in Payatas who might be disabled or too poor to be able to access transportation to the polling place, this became one potential barrier to someone’s desire to vote.
    1. Despite this barrier and the kind of massive crowds that then had to be managed by only marginally prepared and horribly under-paid poll workers, there was undeniably a massive turnout at all polling places we witnessed throughout the Payatas and Fairview Baranguay regions of Quezon City. People wanted to vote. And, everyone was aware of the historic nature of these elections being the end of Arroyo’s unnaturally lengthy tenure, and the debut of the mandated automated voting process.
    1. The media has been reporting on “voter turnout” since the morning of the election. On the morning of May 10, there were predictions ranging from 75% to 85%. Then, on the night of May 10, reports were estimating actual voter turnout of ~80%. All of these figures are tremendously high, especially when compared to more complacent democracies in highly developed countries.
    1. Generally the precincts we observed had ~75% turnouts. The more important observation here, however, is that the rate of voter turnout is typically determined by comparing the number of votes cast to the number of potential votes cast (the total number of registered voters for that precinct). What we observed, however, was a tremendous amount of chaos, machines that did not work consistently exacerbating the queues of people, people who could not find their polling place, etc. These experiences led people to leave the polling places without voting. So, what was the real “voter turnout”? Voters did turn out, but they didn’t get to vote! The government and the media point to the high voter turnout as a success, but to all of those who didn’t vote or didn’t get to vote, the process was a failure. This experience of frustration and disenfranchisement was shared by a significant number of people at all polling places we visited.
    1. The fact that the voting machines did not always work, and the fact that they were often inoperable for considerable stretches at a time meant that many people never received confirmation of their vote. Based on the discussions we had with these voters who completed their ballots then left the polling place before receiving confirmation that their vote had been counted, this had a number of impacts on these voters: 1) there was a suspicion that this was a ploy by the current administration to cause a failed election in order to keep the Arroyo government in power; 2) there was suspicion that the government did not want to receive votes from certain polling places and precincts; 3) after waiting for 3 – 4 hours in queues to vote, people felt disrespected and devalued because as they left they had no idea whether their effort would ever be counted.
    1. The inability of the machines to discern between various types of marks on the ballots added to people’s suspicions because this provided an easy way for ballots not to be counted. Voters were spending upwards of 15 to 20 minutes filling out their ballots partly because the ballots were so long, and partly because each person spent a lot of time trying to fill in the proper oval with the proper shading in order to ensure an accurate count.
    1. Poll workers were paid a paltry 4,300 pesos for their tremendous efforts both prior to and on election day. Assistants made 1,500 pesos. The payment was structured as an “honorarium” so as not to have to pay people for the hours worked beyond the expected commitments. When we asked the poll workers whether they did this work in order to earn some extra money, the general responses were that this was not really extra money since the work was so demanding that the pay was not even close to being commensurate with the hours worked—therefore, they were doing this work out of service to their country and to the democratic process which poll workers uniformly conveyed as being their primary motivation for doing their work even though at the same time, they felt exploited by their government because they were working so hard for so little pay. This is an important distinction. Based on our conversations with poll workers and voters, there seems to be an overwhelming sense of pride in being Filipino and in the sense of community Filipinos feel, but at the same time, there is an overwhelming sense of suspicion about the Philippines and its governance, and little hope that the government in power will do anything especially for the communities of Quezon City in which we were making our observations.
    1. The PCOS machines used by COMELEC to receive and tally the ballots then print and transmit the results had a number of well publicized flaws and were not tested rigorously or thoroughly enough prior to the May 10 Election Day. There are many reasons why machines like these might cost less money than more expensive machines. One reason as we heard during the presentations by experts to our delegation is that the machines purchased by COMELEC are only capable of discerning between 60 types of marks on the ballots rather than 20,000 different kinds of marks that can be assessed by the higher end machines. Typically, other reasons for the difference in cost between machines are 1) reliability—lower end machines are typically less reliable because of the number of hours of workmanship or the materials used to construct the machines; and 2) predictability of results—higher end machines are built and tested to more exacting tolerances and therefore provide less variability in results. The increased cost results from the increased amount of hours expended testing and adjusting each machine in order to provide guarantees of the results to the user. The fact that voters throughout the Philippines already had suspicions about the reliability of the machines meant that people were already skeptical of the process as they headed to the polls.

Concluding Observations

The election process may appear to have been successful as portrayed by the mainstream media, and there certainly was not the type of overt vote manipulation that occurred in the vote of 2007, but there are many consequences of this election that will impact the incoming government.

    1. Voting is important to Filipinos regardless of whether they feel the government is responsive to them. This is their chance to express themselves, and they are intensely proud of being Filipino and feel strongly in their right to suffrage and their right to participate in the selection of their local, provincial and national representatives.
    1. COMELEC’s mishandling of the conversion to an automated system created suspicion and confusion and led to many votes not being cast and voters not being able to verify how their ballot was read. The experience of voting for many Filipinos, therefore, was either disempowering or disenfranchising.
    1. For those who are poor and disproportionately impacted by the machinations of the government (i.e. local, provincial and national), this voting process seemed to be one more deliberate attempt to manipulate process for a predetermined result.
    2. When people experience a process that is disempowering and has even an appearance of being manipulative for the benefit of those already in power, the result is a deepening divide between those in power and those farthest from power because all suspicions and criticisms appear to have been validated.
    1. The fact that the results are coming in now, and there does not appear to be any developing controversy about who will win the national races means that there will be less of a chance for there to be a declaration of a failure of election. Since a failure of election would likely result in the current administration’s remaining in power, this is not the result residents of Payatas wanted (this is what they told us). Having so much chaos and disempowerment and disenfranchisement as a result of a badly managed election process, however, would seem to provoke people to want to have the election done properly in a way that is secure and transparent and trustworthy—to honor the Filipinos’ enthusiasm for their country and to honor their passion for having a voice in deciding who governs them. The fact that there will not be any reasonable conclusion to this election for so many people will persist in the nation’s psyche—especially for those who are poor and exploited—for an indefinite period of time—until there is an administration elected who truly represents and fights for the interests and needs of those most in need.

I hope that this analysis is helpful and accurate. Although I have been to the Philippines twice before and work with the Filipino community in San Francisco, I have two huge disadvantages which are that I don’t live here in the Philippines, and I don’t speak Tagalog. I have tried, however, to gather as much factual information as possible while I’ve been here and during the time of our field work to be able to provide as accurate and useful a report as possible.

The experiences we have had over the past few days have been tremendously inspiring. Many thanks to you and all the PIOM participants for making this a successful observation mission. #

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