Dindo Manhit, President of the Stratbase ADR Institute for Strategic and International Studies
Now that we have reached the one-year mark since the May 2016 elections, it makes sense for us to look back and appreciate how far the electoral process has come—and how much further it can go. In a working democracy, political contests are not only legitimate institutions but also a much-valued responsibility whose results steer the direction of the country. This is still the case in the Philippines, where 80 percent of registered voters trooped to the polls last year.
In its history, our electoral process has been marred by controversies related to transparency, security and the slow transmission of results, all of which enabled cheating. These issues harmed the credibility of the process and, therefore, the integrity of our high institutions. In contrast, the 2016 elections are widely accepted to have been free, fair and properly conducted.
Francisco Magno and Danica Ella Panelo examine the 2016 elections in a special study published by the Stratbase ADR Institute. In the study titled “Technology, Democracy and Elections in the Philippines,” they reflect on the game-changing nature of election automation, the conduct of the 2016 elections, and areas for improvement.
In the Philippines, the shift to automation is based on three objectives: the rapid transmission of results, transparency and security. While voters still manually pick their candidate on machine-readable ballots, the use of vote-counting machines have revolutionized the process. The machines print receipts for voters to verify that their ballot was accurately read. The ballots could then be followed through the public ballot tracking system. By reducing areas for human intervention, the process was quicker and more transparent, enhancing its credibility. Ultimately, the Random Manual Audit Committee composed of the Commission on Elections, National Movement for Free Elections, and Philippine Statistics Authority declared that the data from 687 precincts it had audited matched the ballots with 99.9-percent accuracy.
The success of our elections comes in stark contrast to elections elsewhere in the world, such as in the United States, where concerns over electoral meddling continue to be aired in the news. Magno and Panelo underline how governments can use technology to bridge the gap between authorities and citizens: “When properly implemented, technology can modernize elections and address many of the obstacles experienced by countries using the manual voting process. At a time of increasing distrust between citizens and governments, technology can play a critical role in creating a more transparent and inclusive electoral process.”
Despite the welcome addition of automation, these efforts would be futile if our institutions are not supported to maintain the quality of the results and adapt to new challenges that present themselves. This situation points to an important nexus between technology and institutional development. Because technology evolves, its operators must be prepared to fight new ways of tampering that may be developed. The adoption of any new technology without a corresponding institutional competence could reduce, if not reverse, the gains of automation. It is thus critical for the Comelec to continually develop its capacity.
With the advent of the automated election system, the electoral process has been made more credible and transparent. But more can be done to engage and encourage the participation of the youth, the indigenous peoples and persons with disabilities to make the process more inclusive. Information and education campaigns will help voters reorient from old practices and oil the wheels of the system.
Finally, automation has made the electoral process a convenient and trustworthy exercise, rather than a stressful and tedious process. Thus, one year on from our elections, Filipino voters can look back with relief and celebrate what we undoubtedly got right—shifting to automation. This should be something on which all voters, no matter their political color, can agree.