The Philippines faces its first national election since the May 2010 poll, which elected Benigno Aquino III President with a 42-percent plurality. The 2010 poll was the first computerized election held in the country, and was widely accepted by the Filipino public as free and fair.
The impact of the automation of the election on the democratization of Philippine society was revealed in a study presented yesterday at an academic conference sponsored by the think tank Angara Center for Law and Economics.
The study found that in “replacing handwritten ballots with electronic voting, one might have supposed that poor, rural, and relatively educated voters would have been favored by change. But turnout analysis seems to suggest the opposite.”
According to the study: “Overall voter turnout was lower in 2010 than 2004. Furthermore, the drop in the turnout for rural compared to nonrural municipalities was significant and substantial. This effect is even stronger when only considering low-income communities. Thus, contrary to expectations the automation of voting seems to have disenfranchised relatively poorer voters from rural areas,” where the bulk of Filipino voters live. The old systems supposedly favored more literate, wealthier, more educated voters.
The study was presented by a group of Filipino and foreign academics assembled by the Angara Center. The group is composed of John V.C. Nye, professor of economics at George Mason University and executive director of the Angara Center; Desiree Desierto, professor of economics at the University of the Philippines; and Alberto Simpser, assistant professor at the University of Chicago’s Department of Political Science. Their presentation is titled “What Can We Learn from the 2010 Philippine Elections Data: Computerization, Turnout, and Voting.”
The highlights of the results include: (1) more registered voters, but lower overall turnout in 2010 compared to 2004; (2) higher decline in turnout for rural vs. nonrural areas; (3) bigger drop in turnout in low-income than high-income regions within the rural areas.
What if the turnout were the same? The study found that although registration increased substantially, the fraction of actual to registered voters decreased. The 2010 poll would have seen over 1 million more voters in total, or roughly 5,846 voters on average per municipality.
Why did this turnout decline happen? One explanation, according to the study, might be the fear of dealing with a seemingly complicated, unfamiliar voting system on the part of uninformed voters. “Government information campaigns to prepare the voters for the new technology were not entirely successful,” said the study. “These technology-dissemination problems seem to be supported by evidence that municipalities that created more cooperatives in 2004-2010 had a smaller turnout drop than those that created fewer cooperatives, suggesting that high social capital areas could have diffused information more readily and efficiently.”
The study found that analyses of “statistical returns [and] turnout distributions do not show gross anomalies, but require more detailed work.” It said that there is “no obvious evidence of national anomalies” in the 2010 elections, and that, in general, data suggest that “any fraud is small-scale or perhaps limited to specific regions.”
In a paper titled “Electoral Quality and its Consequences in Comparative Perspectives,” Simpser said every electoral system is concerned with electoral quality: Are elections clean? Do citizens vote in large numbers? Clean elections raise issues such as whether there is fraud or other kinds of manipulation. According to the paper, quality and turnout take three broad patterns: Tighter races have greater turnout; competitive ballot-box stuffing and vote-buying further boosts turnout; excessive manipulation by rulers deters opponents’ turnout.
In Pattern 1 (clean elections), voter participation tends to be higher in tight races. Why? Because of probability of casting the decisive vote and mobilization efforts by political parties. In Pattern 2 (manipulated, competitive elections), voter participation tends to be higher in tight races. Why? Because turnout enhances manipulation, vote-buying or coercing people to show up to vote—manipulation that inflates figures, ballot-box stuffing and tampering with total votes.
In Pattern 3 (manipulated, uncompetitive elections), excessive manipulation deters turnout. Manipulation is “excessive” when not needed to win; excessive manipulation yields large margins of victory.
“Political monopoly” discourages rivals from mobilizing voters, and opposition sympathizers from voting.
In summary, the study points out that there is a strong relationship between electoral quality and turnout. The relationship is contingent on high competitiveness, where marginal manipulation increases turnout, and on low competitiveness, where excessive manipulation decreases turnout.
The consequences: Pattern 2, inflamed passion, spurred unrest and distrust; Pattern 3, entrenchment, deterrence of rivals, long-term political monopoly.
In the Philippine electoral system, Patterns 1 (clean elections) and 2 (competitive manipulation) prevail.
How can Pattern 2 be addressed in policy? The Commission on Elections must have the capacity to investigate and punish wrongdoing. Allegations of manipulation must be investigated vigorously and promptly. The public must not view manipulation as inevitable.