Elections then and now

Voting was uneventful where I voted last Monday. No election irregularities, no machine breaking down or jamming. It just took so long—a little past two hours—from the time I entered the barangay hall to the time the machine flashed the message that I had voted successfully. A drop of indelible ink applied on my finger was the last step in a process that should’ve taken just a little more than half an hour. If I were a senior citizen I would have finished in half the time, but I struggle, vainly, to keep from entering middle age. I endured a long, slowly moving line to get the ballot, a long piece of paper that reminded me of school and multiple-choice exams.

I voted in Urdaneta Village in Makati, where three stations with voting machines handled the entire precinct. Since I had received neither a voter’s ID nor a letter confirming or denying my registration filed in October 2011, I was not sure my name would be on the list posted outside the polling center. The night before, I checked online—the Commission on Elections’ server was very slow—and found my precinct number and my active voting status. What the Comelec should do next time is to include the voter’s cluster number to prevent the inconveniences on Election Day itself. Fortunately, there were many helpful volunteers in Urdaneta, mostly eager young people, who made the experience less stressful.

I followed a senior citizen who couldn’t read the lists posted outside because she had forgotten her glasses or was too vain to be seen using glasses in public. We went to a Help Desk where someone found our precinct, cluster, and voter numbers. Why does the Comelec post lists by cluster when it is simpler for everyone to have one alphabetical master list to help people find their proper cluster? I heard that in other places, one had to go from one part of a school building to another just to find their names on the list. Little wonder that some just gave up and went home. The other question is: Why don’t we have elections on a Sunday so that we don’t need to remove one more day from the working year already peppered with nonworking holidays?

Tempers did not rise in Urdaneta because the hall was air-conditioned and cold drinking water was available for free. Chairs were provided for those who had to wait in the long line I was in. Things were not as comfortable in other polling places. The problem in Urdaneta was that the Comelec should have had the common sense to adapt to the number of registered voters. Two stations handled what seemed to be the entire voting population of Urdaneta, while one station handled nearby “Apartment Ridge,” which had voters from five high-rise condominium buildings. Since the Apartment Ridge cluster was far bigger than the two Urdaneta Village clusters combined, common sense (which is unfortunately not common) dictates that a more efficient way of distributing the ballots should have been undertaken. I still cannot understand why it took me close to two hours just to get a ballot. On the whole, my experience was better than most, but the Comelec can make voting easier next time around.

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Municipal elections in Spanish Philippines seemed relatively simple compared to our times because there were not many candidates and electors. American historian Glenn Anthony May studied elections in Batangas in the late 19th century and drew this pattern:

The provincial governor would notify a gobernadorcillo regarding the date and time of a meeting that would comprise an election. The right to participate was restricted to males who comprised the principalia or the leading citizens, namely the gobernadorcillo, cabezas de barangay (barangay heads), cabezas reformados (former heads who had held the post for a minimum of 10 years), capitanes pasados (former gobernadorcillos and others). From this already select group, some would be disqualified due to arrears in tax collection or a civil or criminal case filed against them.

A provincial governor presided over the elections in the town hall or municipio where he was welcomed by the principalia and of course the parish priest. The various laws and rules on elections were read aloud “in the language of the province,” followed by the sorteo or the selection by lots of 12 individuals who will vote with the incumbent gobernadorcillo on that day.

Why 13 people? I guess that was the number of Jesus and his 12 disciples. The names of eligible men were placed in urns and drawn by a boy who by law was not older than seven years.

After the sorteo the 13 electors would be ushered into a room where the governor delivered a speech reminding them to cast aside “all personal interest, all particular preference, and all party spirit, being directed only by their concern for the well-being of the townspeople and the proper administration of the town.” They were advised to vote for one who was “most meritorious, most capable, most honorable, and most zealous in the service of the [Crown and Church].” The electors wrote the names of their first and second choices for the post of gobernadorcillo on slips of paper. Their election was not final because it required the approval of the governor-general in Manila, and it often took months before the winner is proclaimed.

Then as now, elections are a major spectacle, a necessary public ritual. Times have changed, but the way we deal with elections has changed little.

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Comments are welcome at aocampo@ateneo.edu