While the resumption of voter registration on Monday, next week, will be viewed by most in the context of the May 2018 barangay and Sangguniang Kabataan elections, it is worth noting that we are already well within the period during which the Commission on Elections should be preparing for the midterm polls of 2019. In other words, now is the perfect time to reflect on just how vulnerable elections were to fraud, prior to 2010.
The tendency today is to idealize the concept of manual vote counting as some sort of optimal scenario. For many young voters today, particularly those who were never exposed to real manual elections, much less have any comprehensive knowledge of how elections worked at the nuts and bolts level, this pitch can be very attractive. Never having known anything but automated elections, it is easy for these millennial voters to believe in narratives that tend to view the past only through a soft-focus lens. The reality, however, was far from rosy.
Manual counting, or the process of opening up every ballot and reading out the written votes, was a mess on so many levels. First, the ballots could be pre-filled up and stuffed inside the ballot box. At the end of voting, a sham “count” of these bogus ballots would then be conducted with practically no way to prove that each ballot was placed in the box by individual voters.
Second, assuming that the ballots being counted were legitimately filled up by voters and actually cast on election day, unscrupulous politicians could bring incredible pressure to bear on the Boards of Election Inspectors (BEI)—public-school teachers— to “read” the votes in their favor.
This could be done in any number of ways, but for the most part, it was facilitated by the fact that having the voter write down the names of her choices resulted in a great deal of uncertainty as to the intent of the voter, ranging from incomprehensible penmanship, to candidate names being misspelled, to unheard of nicknames being used, among other things.
Long story short, the teachers on the BEI had wide discretionary powers when it came to interpreting what was actually written on the ballot, often leading to votes being tallied on a best-guess basis. And since no voter could actually confirm that his ballot was being read correctly, there was almost no guarantee that the will of the voter was being faithfully recorded.
Because so much depended on how the BEI interpreted the ballot, the reality was that a gun or a well-placed bribe could easily swing all the questionable ballots in favor of the one who held the gun or the gold. And, of course, there was always the threat of postelection lawsuits that could, at best, suck these public- school teachers—who receive only a pittance for their election services—into expensive and long-drawn out legal battles with losing candidates, putting their liberty at considerable jeopardy.
The need to puzzle out voter intent from each of the ballots also inevitably meant that the process was subject to numerous interruptions, as representatives of the candidates would invariably pose challenges to how a ballot was read, every chance they got. Even under the best of circumstances, this meant that counting could last well into the night, often into the wee hours of the next day.
And third, after a ballot was read out, another teacher marked the tally board—usually a large sheet of paper with the printed names of the candidates—and its smaller sibling, the election returns. Marking was done with stick marks—we call them taras—noted down in little boxes next to the candidates’ names; each box holding four vertical marks, crossed diagonally by a fifth. Even assuming guns and gold were not at issue, a number of factors predispose to this system failing, fatigue being the most common. By the time counting and tallying starts, the teachers doing the job will have been up more than 13 hours; as the counting draws on, many will have to stay awake for more than 24 hours. Under such conditions, errors are made. Even without deliberate intent, the results could be skewed, ultimately defeating the purpose of holding elections in the first place.
Let all of that sink in for a while, knowing that we’ve only just skimmed the surface of how truly vulnerable to error, fraud and manipulation manual counting truly is.