‘Failure of elections,
failure of coverage?’

AT 20, Joana will be casting her vote for the first time this Monday. But her excitement has been heightened by the fact that she will also be covering the elections.

Joana has been a journalist for barely a year. Yet while she is looking forward to the polls as a young reporter and a first-time voter,  her eagerness has somehow been dampened by  widespread skepticism over the Commission on Elections’ (Comelec) ability to handle the country’s first nationwide automated elections.

Reporters listen attentively during a training seminar on covering automated elections. Photo by Tita Valderama.

In fact, in all the six regional workshops on covering elections that were conducted by the Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism (PCIJ) in a span of seven months, more than 50 percent of the participants expressed fears of a “failure of election” or “failure of automation,” with a significant number raising doubts about the Comelec’s readiness to shift from the manual system.

The 120 journalist-participants – among them Joana, who for some reason requested that her full name not be used — represented a mix of junior and senior reporters and editors from government and private television, radio, print, and online news websites, as well as political bloggers.

All of them expressed wariness toward the automation of the polls, with the biggest worry stemming from possible machine malfunctions. That could lead to a failure of elections, many said.

Most of the participants speculated as well that the “newness” of the system could make it vulnerable to cheating. Not a few pointed out that journalists themselves knew little about the automated polls, which could lead to inaccurate reporting on the polls if they did not bone up on the system and how it is supposed to work.

A field reporter from Cebu meanwhile echoed several of the participants in saying that perhaps the Comelec should have focused first on trying to limit the opportunities to cheat. “There are realities in the Philippine elections that cannot be changed like, for instance, cheating and selling of votes,” said the reporter. “It is sad to say that we are changing the method of our elections and we spend billions (of pesos) to implement it, yet the (opportunities for) cheating are still there.”

Abdel Jalani, a government radio reporter from Jolo, lamented that corruption had become part of the electoral system, and that automation would not likely solve the problem.

Bohol Chronicle publisher/editor Bingo Dejaresco noted, “The automated system by itself already has both its strong and weak points, but it only solves the post-precinct election shenanigans. It does not solve the first half of the problem where the electorate is terrorized by the 3Gs – goons, guns, and gold.”

Election lawyer Luie Tito F. Guia told PCIJ that the fear about failure of automation could be traced to the fact that the public has yet to see Comelec come up with practical solutions to problems in the system and its processes.

“It’s a question about the capability of the Comelec to address issues like proper distribution of the ballots and the PCOS machines in the precincts considering that the machines are configured per precinct, and people are anticipating possible problems in the polling place, and implementers in the field are not prepared,” he said.

He also observed that Comelec’s recent decisions and actions do not seem to inspire confidence among the public.

Atty. Luie Guia of the lawyers' group Libertas briefs reporters on election laws. Photo by Tita Valderama.

For instance, there was the botched P700-million deal for ballot secrecy folders. In some areas, confusion has also reigned as vote recounts or electoral proceedings sent governors and mayors packing just a few weeks before the elections, even though they had enjoyed undeniable public support.

Guia made clear, however, that failure of automation would not necessarily translate to failure of elections. After all, he explained, the elections could still proceed by reverting to the manual system if the machines break down.

Comelec Education and Information Department Director James Jimenez,  for his part, said that there is no cause for worry about the automated polls.

“Right now, everything we have for the elections, we have them already,” he told PCIJ in late March. “The machines are here, all the various components of the elections are here.” He did say they were still waiting for the ballots to arrive at the time, but he said they would be done by the end of April.

“We’re ready to conduct the elections,” Jimenez stressed. – PCIJ, May 2010