The Philippine Star - What the Philippines can learn from the US elections

News & Interviews
3 December 2020

By Andres D. Bautista | The Philippine Star

An earlier article discussed Philippine election practices observed in the 2020 US election. As we prepare for our own May 2022 presidential elections, let’s flip the question and analyze what lessons can be gleaned from the recent US elections and potentially applicable to our forthcoming electoral exercise.

Unlike the Philippines where a national commission on elections oversees the entire process, elections in the US are regulated on a state-by-state basis. While the Philippines is politically subdivided into regions, provinces, cities, municipalities and barangays, each US state is made up of counties, cities and towns. The Philippines uses a voting system for the entire country while each state (and even each county) administers its own election system in accordance with state law. Parenthetically, there are approximately 3,000 counties nationwide with Los Angeles county in California as the largest in the US with a population of over 10 million.

At the end of the day, every functioning democracy pursues two basic objectives in its elections: a) get as many citizens to participate and vote; and b) ensure that each vote is accurately counted.

Absentee voting

Simply put, the system of absentee voting does not require a citizen to personally vote on Election Day. Instead, the voter is given various options on how, when and where to vote.

1. How to vote

In general, Americans have the choice to either: a) vote in-person; b) drop their absentee ballots in the polling centers and/or designated secure ballot boxes (sometimes referred to as “drive thru” voting; or c) mail back their ballots.

2. When to vote

Aside from the traditional option of voting on Election Day, Americans were given several weeks before Election Day to visit polling centers to cast their votes (“early voting”). Ballots that were mailed back had to be post marked by a certain deadline.

3. Where to vote

Since the voter list was computerized, a voter was given the option to vote in any polling center located in the county. Comfortable, convenient and safe venues such as community centers, public libraries and church reception areas were used as polling centers.

In contrast, with limited exceptions granted to overseas Filipinos, the armed forces and members of the media, a Philippine citizen can only vote in person on Election Day, which is constitutionally directed to be the second Monday of May. Moreover, Philippine public schools serve as the main polling centers which, given limited public resources, do not have the facilities to comfortably accommodate the droves of voters on election day.

Postal voting

Postal voting is one of the forms of absentee voting. For months preceding the November election, President Trump consistently criticized the system of mail-in voting even if he availed of an absentee ballot in Florida. What he was actually railing about was the system of certain states (Oregon, Washington, Hawaii, Colorado and Utah) which mailed ballots to all of their registered voters whether or not they had requested for one (“All postal voting”). His main criticism was these ballots could be used by voters other than those they were intended for. Yet US studies have shown that incidents of double voting or voter fraud were uncommon.

With COVID-19 pandemic raging in the US, states were looking for safe and secure ways for their voters to cast their ballots. Mailing in ballots and using ballot drop boxes were obviously safer alternatives, particularly for the elderly and persons with pre-existing conditions. So aside from the five states enumerated above, other states including California, New Jersey, Georgia sent ballots to all of their registered voters.

Best practices

I observed the voting process in Fulton County, Georgia. The masked, socially-distanced voter entered the polling center and presented an identification card at the reception. The voter signed an acknowledgment not to use an absentee ballot under penalty of law. The voter was then directed to one of the touch screen direct-recording electronic (DRE) terminals. The voter entered her choices and was then allowed to review the selections before printing the filled ballot. The voter also had an opportunity to review the printed ballot before inserting it in an optical scanning machine (OSM) which was similar to the device the Philippines has used in its automated elections. The voter then received a message that the ballot had been accepted. Unlike in the Philippines, the voter left the polling center without getting a receipt of the candidates voted for.

This combination DRE and OSM system is the current gold standard in terms of accuracy and security. The voter’s choices are recorded in both the computer terminal and the scanner. This system is easier to conduct an audit and far less susceptible to vote-rigging.

Unfortunately, given current Philippine conditions, a system of absentee voting similar to the US is not workable. First, our postal service is not equipped to deliver and pick up mail on time. Its unreliability could lead to lost ballots and unintended vote suppression. Second, the system, without proper safeguards, is open to abuse by unscrupulous politicians who could exploit the unused ballots for their benefit. Issues dealing with identity theft or the dead voting may resurrect. Third, the system may lend itself to and only encourage vote buying, which is already prevalent in our elections.

To recap, what are the ideas that can be transplanted in the Philippine context for the May 2022 elections? Consider the possibility of early voting to give the voters more opportunities to vote. Utilize more convenient and accessible polling centers such as malls and other private establishments not just for voting but for registration purposes as well. And given our computerized voters’ list, allow the voter the option to vote in any precinct located within the city or municipality.

Andres D. Bautista served as the chairman of the Commission on Elections from 2015 to 2017.