Tuesday, 11 May 2010

Business Mirror Editorial: 3 hours to be part of history


THE usual problems associated with the age-old manual voting had an ample presence, as expected, in Monday’s first nationwide automated polls, proving that technology can only do so much, and that much of the reforms in the way we do things will rest on human conduct—or folly.

There were reports of vote-buying, of partisans disguised as watchdog volunteers, of some watchers actively cajoling voters inside precincts. There were the expected reports of poll-related violence, such as indiscriminate firing of guns, encounters between soldiers and policemen, or of bodyguards of candidates coming to blows.

Those are the deliberate acts of sabotage. There were also many disruptions in the otherwise-smooth automated polls that arose because of human failure or incompetence, plain shortsightedness, or the failure of the Commission on Elections (Comelec) and the education department to orient well enough the teachers serving as election tellers. In many precincts in Metro Manila, people complained of having to take nearly three hours on average just to cast their vote—of which two-thirds is spent standing in long, snake-like lines outside the precincts.

And yet, just when they thought there were problems with the Precinct Count Optical Scan or PCOS machine, it turned out some of the Boards of Election Inspectors (BEIs) were simply too slow in processing the voters—imposing different procedures depending on the BEI chairman’s whim, including many overlapping or unnecessary steps that caused the crowds to pile up.

To be fair to teachers, the clustering of precincts caused the number of voters they handle to swell, from just 300 to 400 in previous polls, to 1,000 in this one. Ironically, in some places where the lines were long, voters took just a few minutes to fill out ballots, using their precious codigo, and took much less time to feed their ballots into machines that smoothly scanned and counted their shaded ovals, clapping their hands when shown the PCOS’s “Congratulations, your vote has been registered.”

Yet, it turned out in some places, the lines grew long outside because teachers had a hard time flipping through those massive, antiquated voters’ books, or set aside just a few chairs for the actual voting, or did not manage the lines well.

Some voters were also aghast—after having been told to write their full names and precinct number twice on blank sheets of paper—to find their personal details and photos, the ones they recalled having given Comelec years ago, neatly filed in a separate folder manned by the person getting their right thumb marks and applying indelible ink on their right index finger. Why, they asked, hasn’t Comelec used this folder right at the start of the process, so teachers can quickly check the photos against the faces? And what happened to the expensive (billions of pesos) voter biometrics project, which compelled voters several years ago to line up for half a day, with the promise of a high-tech ID card that never materialized?

When the postscript for this historic exercise is written, authorities should devote as much attention not just to the PCOS machines and compact-flash-cards fiasco, but also the more basic—truly cleaning up the voter’s registry and giving decent ID cards to voters who took the trouble of providing their biometrics.

As this is being written, it’s too early to make a final verdict on the May 10 polls. But if genuine public interest were a gauge, as seen from the huge turnout despite the angry remarks over the long lines—on a hot day at that—then maybe this exercise could be declared a winner in the sense of affirming the Filipinos’ sense of sacrifice for elections.

For all their cynicism about politicians and their broken vows, the people came out in droves—and stayed on despite the heat, hunger and discomfort—just for keeping the privilege of freely choosing their leaders. Three hours to be part of history? It’s obvious citizens traded time for the freedom, ending their long day with a prayer that the next leaders will reward that effort with genuine service.

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