Subverting the popular will

MANILA, Philippines — The period for filing certificates of candidacy for the coming elections is over. Now, the vital public concern is to ensure that every ballot is counted honestly, accurately and speedily. As a small contribution to this effort, I will attempt, as simply as I can, to expose some of the ways used by politicians to subvert the popular will during the various stages of the electoral process. The Parish Pastoral Council for Responsible Voting (PPCRV) codes these schemes as the three Gs: “guns, goons and gold.” Someone quipped a fourth G, “Garci.”

Prior to and during election day. Before election day, the most common cheating includes the padding of the voters? lists, the registration of “flying” or unqualified voters, as well as the printing of fake or excess ballots, election returns and other forms. More damaging is the fielding of like-named or “nuisance” candidates to invalidate ballots cast for the genuine aspirants.

A systematic way of cheating is called “lansadera.” Here, a genuine ballot is spirited out of the polling place, often with the connivance of the Board of Election Inspectors (BEI). The ballot is filled up in a safe house and then given to a registered voter who, after going through the normal process in the polling place, casts it in the ballot box. Thereafter, he brings the blank ballot he received (and did not use) back to the safe house where it is also filled up. The process is then repeated on and on.

Another dishonest scheme is to pay off hostile voters to prevent them from casting their ballots for the opponent. To assure them of success, the malefactors place indelible ink on a fingernail of the voter to show that the latter had already voted. Under the law, voters with inked fingernails are no longer allowed to vote.

More brazen ways of cheating include outright intimidation, bribery, terrorism or coercion of electors. To ensure the compliance of coerced or bought voters, cheaters have devised subtle ways of identifying the ballots cast by them, for example, by writing the middle names of some candidates or by the peculiar arrangement of the names voted for senator or councilor.

Cheating after the ballots are cast. During the counting at the precinct level, cheating is done through the misreading of the ballots. Sometimes, the names on the ballots are not read; at other times, names not written thereon are “read.” Thus, votes are illegally added to or subtracted from the tally.

“Wholesale” cheating happens when the election returns or the statements of votes (SOVs)—by precinct or by municipality/city—are altered or substituted with fake or “excess” forms. This is commonly called “dagdag-bawas.”

The election returns contain the number of votes that candidates obtain from the precincts. A change of one number, say, from 10 to 100 by appending a zero, can alter the results in a town election. The SOV reflects the consolidated election returns from a municipality or city. Again, a change in an SOV from 1,000 to 10,000, or vice versa, can spell victory or defeat. The SOVs are the bases of the Provincial Boards of Canvassers (BOC) in preparing the Certificates of Canvass and, eventually, in proclaiming the winners.

The critical struggles in local polls take place after the precinct counting but prior to proclamation, in litigations known as pre-proclamation controversies. The essential issue is the validity of the election returns. Because time is of the essence, the parties must be extra-vigilant at this period. Many candidates spend all their resources during the election campaign, forgetting that the canvass requires even more vigilance by their lawyers and watchers.

After proclamation. After a candidate is proclaimed winner by the BOC, the victory can still be contested via timely election protests in the regional trial courts (for municipal officials), the Commission on Elections (for provincial and city officials), or the House or Senate Electoral Tribunals (for members of Congress). After proclamation, cheating consists mainly of changing or substituting valid ballots with fake or tampered ones, while they are in the custody of the municipal treasurers.

When an incumbent local official is unseated, the winner must be specially on guard, because the loser has access to government resources and local officials. The burning, stealing and defacing of ballots and other election paraphernalia have happened in the past.

Many lawyers have complained about dubious decisions of the Comelec and the trial courts. They claim that ballots are improvidently invalidated to overcome winning margins simply on the bare conclusion that they are “marked” or “spoiled” or written by two hands, without stating the legal reason for the ruling.

Popular election lawyer Romulo Macalintal complains that in an election contest involving a provincial governor in which the margin of victory was 2,700, the Comelec decided the case by simply invalidating 3,500 ballots of the winner, on the ground that they were written by one person and/or were “marked.” But the records showed that the ballot boxes had not even been opened, because their permanent seals were still intact. How then were the ballots examined?

Until cheating is successfully checked by a credible Comelec, democracy will always be endangered and the popular will, subverted. To paraphrase a common saying, eternal vigilance at all stages of the polls is the price of democracy.

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