Democratic succession amid a pandemic

Dindo Manhit, President, Stratbase ADR Institute

Like in many other countries, the conduct of elections in the Philippines during a pandemic will be unprecedented. For this democratic exercise, we must aim for that delicate balance between ensuring election continuity and safeguarding public health.

These are not binary options. We do not have to choose one over the other.

Much can be learned from the experiences and practices of other countries that have conducted elections in 2020 and 2021. The Council on Foreign Relations (CFR), an independent, nonpartisan member organization, think tank, and publisher, provided an evidence-based analysis that elections can be held in this pandemic period without necessarily sacrificing public health.

“Experts say elections held so far have shown that the risk of transmission in polling places decreases if officials enforce social distancing, require mask wearing, increase ventilation, and sanitize surfaces, among other measures,” CFR said.

Thus, what needs to be done is to ensure the strict observance of clear health protocols or guidelines from both the national government and local government units. Again, such an undertaking requires the cooperation of all stakeholders — the different sectors of society and the voters themselves.

With more than 63 million registered voters for the 2022 national elections, another top concern is election credibility. It is in this aspect where the Automated Election System (AES) plays a crucial role.

For so many decades before 2010, the year AES was first adopted, the problem of dagdag-bawas (add-subtract) haunted the credibility of elections in our country. The implementation of the AES has ensured and, to a great extent, guaranteed the legitimacy of elections.

For the 2016 and 2019 elections, PulseAsia conducted surveys, commissioned by Stratbase ADR Institute, to determine the people’s trust in the election results and on the continued use of automated voting in future elections.

Asked to indicate how big or small their trust is in the results of the 2016/2019 automated elections, 74% of Filipinos expressed Big Trust in the 2016 elections, while 22% expressed “May Be Big/May Be Small.” The very significant trust even improved by 10 percentage points when asked about the 2019 election results, where 84% replied with Big Trust.

It is noteworthy that the increase in the already big trust in the results of the automated elections were gained from the nine-percentage point decrease in those who could not decide whether their trust in the election outcome was big or small, showing even more voter trust.

In terms of the continued use of automated voting, the same commissioned survey revealed that in 2016, 89% of Filipinos said Yes. Again, this improved by two percentage points in the 2019 survey, implying that nine out of 10 Filipinos approved of the use of the automated system in future elections.

To a large extent, the AES provides a safer environment in the voting precincts as it prevents the existence of conglomerations and minimizes person-to-person contact in the counting of votes.

Equally important is the believability aspect of the AES. Specifically, Democracy Watch Philippines (DemWatch) asserts that “the voter verification paper audit trail (VVPAT) or voting receipts of the Commission on Elections (Comelec) is a good transparency mechanism, in which voters can verify if the ballots they cast have been read correctly by the vote counting machines.”

Further, upon the Supreme Court’s decision “that the Comelec did not commit grave abuse of discretion in implementing the SC’s 2016 order to use voting receipts” and that the Comelec “exercised its judgment to ensure free, orderly and honest elections and to protect the secrecy and sanctity of ballots without grave abuse of discretion,” DemWatch stated that “the SC decision is yet another testament to the credibility and legitimacy of the automated election system (AES).”

The Comelec’s efforts to ensure safety in the 2022 exercise and election continuity — more transparent and reliable elections through automated elections, citizen source code review, and purchase of machines and source code — are more than laudable.

Another big concern in the election period is the current existence of widespread disinformation and misinformation. According to the CFR, establishing lines of communication between health authorities and elections agencies were instrumental in creating “standardized guidelines for polling places,” carrying out “nationwide voter-education campaigns,” and “planning for potential outbreaks.”

Holding meaningful elections and providing the kind of information environment where voters can make informed electoral choices are only possible if the public is empowered and enlightened.

Cognizant that the slate of political candidates will be finalized by Nov. 15 as provided by law, the Stratbase ADR Institute, in partnership with Democracy Watch Philippines, will launch an election webinar on Oct. 26, entitled “Democracy Goes On: Upholding a Safe, Free, and Credible 2022 Elections in the New Normal.”

Demonstrated by the experiences of countries in 2020 and 2021, the pandemic should not be used to justify the suspension of elections. As the International Foundation for Electoral Systems (IFES) appropriately emphasized in its COVID-19 Briefing Series, “As we try to crush the virus, we risk further hastening a troubling global decline in democracy that predates its emergence.”

The Filipinos’ commitment to democratic survival is absolute. We must reject any attempt to weaken or subvert our democratic system of succession and uphold our democratic institutions at all costs.

This article was originally published in BusinessWorld.

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