Despite COVID-19, the election must go on

Dindo Manhit, President, Stratbase ADR Institute

In this time of pandemic, democratic procedures and practices are the most likely victims of emergency situations and responses that would involve the urgent allocation and release of public funds. Oversight mechanisms are largely set aside in the effort to mitigate the socioeconomic impact speedily.

Elections in the pandemic period have also been held hostage under the name of public health and emergency powers. The experiences of South Korea, Singapore, Canada, and Europe, and now the United States, are replete with lessons on how to prepare for and conduct elections in the middle of the pandemic, demonstrating to us that this vital democratic exercise must go on.

On the ground, electoral bodies should start taking proactive steps to craft novel operational plans to ensure the health and safety of all participants in the 2022 Philippine elections. Alternative voting options and risk-mitigating measures should not be focused solely on prospective health conditions, but should equally address the quality and credibility of the electoral contest.

A year from now, electoral hopefuls are going to file their candidacy for the 2022 national elections. Expectedly, the usual critics of the automated election system (AES), mandated by law and successfully implemented by the Commission on Elections (Comelec) in four election cycles now, will again raise rehashed arguments against it and pitch for hybrid elections.

Before entertaining any alternatives, there should be a sound analysis of the current AES, the outcome of which legitimized the past two administrations based on credible results and data. Is there really a good reason to change the system, or is it just a matter of addressing manageable gaps in the Comelec election infrastructure?

A good barometer for the 2022 exercise would be the 2016 and 2019 Philippine midterm elections, the third and fourth nationwide implementation of the mandated automated election system. A study by Ador R. Torneo and Topin S. Ruiz, “2019 Mid-Term Elections in Review: An Assessment of the ‘Credibility’ of the 2019 Mid-Term Elections,” concluded that the 2019 exercise was “well-run based on its overall integrity, participation, voter confidence, adherence with procedures, and accessibility of precincts. Compared to the past four elections, the 2019 elections did better in almost all indicators.”

The midterm elections’ credibility achieved very good ratings based on two surveys conducted last year. A Social Weather Stations survey revealed that four out of five Filipinos were satisfied with the results, while a Pulse Asia survey showed that 82 percent of Filipinos believed that the results of the 2019 midterm elections were credible. The latter also showed that 83 percent believed the results were delivered in a timely manner. The fastest transmission rate achieved in the 2019 polls was 92.12 percent, after only 10 hours.

The 2020 SWS Survey Review, meanwhile, revealed that except for vote-buying, irregularities like harassment of voters, flying voters, cheating in the vote count, bribery, and violence on election day were minor. Vote-buying has been reduced, in fact. On the institutional side, the reputation of the Comelec improved by 7 percent, with 79 percent agreeing on the impartiality of the poll body. In general, the election was perceived to have exhibited marked improvement from the past national exercises.

The democratic gains achieved in the 2019 elections are tangible indicators that must be upheld. They represent a formidable benchmark for the conduct of the 2022 elections.

The lingering impact of the current health crisis on the people and the economy should not blindside us to the threat of the abandonment of democratic procedures and practices in the name of expediency.

Government and civil society are both accountable for ensuring safety, broad participation, and credibility in any electoral exercise. Specifically, government and nongovernment electoral bodies must prevent any regression or backsliding from the gains and performance of the 2019 elections. Electoral continuity is not just some sort of formality—it is crucial to the health and endurance of our democratic way of life.

This article was originally published in the Philippine Daily Inquirer. Image Source:

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