Election day coverage: Automation, at last!

Written on July 2, 2010 – 10:27 pm | by mediaandelections |

Published on May-June 2010 issue of PJR Reports.

Filipinos awaited the first automated elections in the country with understandable doubt and uncertainty, if not widespread and genuine fear. It had taken four years of heated legislative battle to establish the basis in law for automation (Election Modernization Act or Republic Act 8436).  The Commission on Elections’ (COMELEC) implementation was fraught with scandal and controversy at different stages, and up to the eve of election day itself, many Filipinos were not sure whether the new process would work well enough to hold credible elections.

Experts and various groups raised questions central to the integrity of the system. As reported in the media, questions focused concern on, among others, the availability of transmission facilities for the electronic delivery of election results, physical security of the Precinct Count Optical Scanning (PCOS) machines including the Compact Flash (CF) cards, the installation of the source code, the breakdown of the PCOS machines, and not the least, the training, or the lack thereof, that would prepare technical personnel and members of the Board of Election Inspectors (BEI) and Board of Canvassers for the new system of voting.

Knowing that most countries undertake automation in phases, Filipinos were dubious about the attempt of the Commission on Elections (COMELEC) to automate in one shot the 76,475 clustered precincts all over the country.

It did not help either that just a year ago, the legality of the bidding process had provoked lengthy hearings in Congress.  And it was hardly reassuring that the bid was won by Smartmatic Corp., the same company involved in the 2004 elections in Venezuela.

These new issues were perplexing and overwhelming enough. But there were the old headaches which plagued manual elections, problems which would not be addressed by automation. Election experts in the country warned about complications arising from the clustering of the precincts and the newly certified voters list. As in the past, there would probably be as many voters who would not be able to vote on May 10 2010 because their names were not in the list as there were in the past.

There were few reports on the implications of the simple clustering of precincts, which increased voters to up to 1000, from previous levels of 200.  Little was heard from the COMELEC or the Parish Pastoral Council for Responsible Voting (PPCRV), the poll body’s accredited citizen’s arm for 2010, about the impact of the numbers on the old time and motion systems for running an electoral precinct.

On May 10, everyone, including the media, was focused on automation, the machines and the length of time it would take to vote.

A new assignment for the media

Reporting on the first automated election posed new challenges to the media. The press had to be alert to new kinds of problems as well as to keep the coverage on the day itself interesting. But it was obvious from the first hours of coverage that the two major networks were clearly prepared to resort to the magic of technology to keep audiences tuned in. (See “Media Technology on Election 2010: Showdown or Showtime?”).

In the past, with some ballots counted in the evening, the media usually tried to catch these partial readings and to report incomplete vote counts as they found them. With automation, this was not possible to do as the count could begin only after the end of the day.

Given the excitement surrounding automation as well as the tight contest among candidates for high office, broadcast media organizations had prepared for the coverage in a big way. Their strategies included training programs for citizen journalists in election reporting and the use of the latest technologies to aid in the coverage.

Unfortunately and ironically, the press, despite– or perhaps because— of the intense focus on the new voting machines, failed to highlight critical problems during election day.

The long lines

Given the central place of the PCOS machine, very little attention was given to other problems that could arise which would highlight the lack of preparedness of the Board of Election Inspectors  (BEI).

The BEI is composed of three members: one chairman and two other members, one of which serves as the poll clerk. According to the Omnibus Election Code (Batas Pambansa Bilang 881), public school teachers shall serve as members of the BEI and they will conduct the elections organizing the voter and assuring orderly behavior inside the polling place.

But the Comelec General Instruction for the BEI for the May automated elections (Resolution 8786), did not elaborate on the requirements necessitated by more voter in each precinct.  It was not surprising then that many voters were disenfranchised because in some precincts the BEI was totally unprepared for the numbers. The result was long delays for voters, some for as long as four hours. While the media were wondering about the length of time it would take a voter to properly shade their choices on the long ballot, the lines lengthened  in the hot sun.

The COMELEC said that it left it to the BEIs to decide how to manage each precinct and the movement of  voters.  Its resolutions did not guide the BEI so it could properly fulfill its responsibility on election day itself. The new system gave the BEI a new role in a new process. Without proper preparation and training, the most dedicated teachers could easily falter.  Some precincts were managed well enough and there were few complaints. But, there were many others where voters stood in line and, given the hours, were forced to leave without voting.

The system set up in many precincts had voters waiting in line to be given a number. This sometimes took  as long as an hour. Given their numbers, the voters still had to wait, and the wait was longer than the act of voting itself.

Underreporting of the long lines of voters waiting outside the precincts was a remarkable failure of media coverage. No official or volunteer was asked early enough why the process was taking so long. In some precincts, it would have been solved by simply passing on numbers as these were used. At least, it would give the voters some idea about how much longer they would have to wait.

The long lines of voters was generally regarded as normal, even acceptable, and that voters were called to do their duty and wait for however long it took to vote. The willingness of the voters to stand for hours in line was unduly celebrated as commitment to duty and belief in democracy. It was unfair to forget that many voters simply did not have the capacity to stand in the heat nor to be absent from work, especially the daily wage earners, or from other duties they had for that day. Such acceptance on the part of the media was a failure to inquire into the problem, and examine the reasons for things going wrong; which if done, early enough, could have forced responsible officials to try and set things right.  No one seemed prepared to watch the conduct of the system of voting itself. The reason why there were long lines goes back to the fact that each BEI was left to its own devices to set up its own system. The resulting differences in the efficiency of the systems were not noted by the coverage.

Media did report on people’s complaints, and on the vendors doing brisk business selling food and drinks to the people in the lines. But media reports on the failure of the systems could have directed the officials to find a solution in time.

Other gaps

The press also failed to report on other lapses by the COMELEC, from the absence of ultraviolet (UV) scanners which would have checked if a ballot form was legitimate, to the reasons for the delayed transmission of votes from the last 20 percent of the precincts. In a few days, the serious implications of the delayed transmission became obvious with the close  vice-presidential contest.

There were spot reports on election violence and fraud, but these were reported with little context. Ironically,  election day, which the media routinely described as peaceful and relatively orderly was marred by 29 incidents of violence,  with 19 dead, and 23 wounded (according to VotePeace which monitored election-related violence).  Reports  limited only to the numbers killed or injured during elections can have the effect of making such violence “normal.”  And yet the mapping of violence is one way of raising public awareness about the conditions that give rise to election violence or fraud, perhaps showing how these co-relate to the rule of political warlords.

Little context was given to other problems such as missing names in the voters’ registration lists and cases of vote- buying. With a little bit of editorial preparation, reports on these incidents could have provided the necessary background on what needed to be done to eliminate these recurring problems in the future.

Focus on candidates and politicians

Given the “disenfranchisement” of countless voters who could not wait for hours, the attention given to the candidates and where and how they voted showed media preference for the easy story. Especially where these candidates did not have to wait in line, the focus suggests  acceptance of the status attached to celebrity and officialdom. Specific instructions were given to the field reporters of some networks to focus on this, despite the fact that automation had created an entirely new environment, and, as it turned out, entirely new issues.

Only where a presidential candidate waited in line like an ordinary citizen, which candidate Benigno Aquino III did in his precinct in Tarlac was the focus justified. Without such conditions to set the presidential candidate’s act of voting apart, a summary report of where or how each one voted would have sufficed, as a “color” piece.

As a government-owned network, NBN-4 lived up to its reputation as government’s propaganda machine and showed obvious bias for administration candidate Gilberto “Gibo”  Teodoro Jr. The administration candidate was the network’s most covered candidate during election day, giving him, and him alone, full coverage when he voted.

Prominent candidates for local posts were covered on election day. PJRR notes that it was probably the only time the national media cared to cover the local elections. Despite the power and resources devolved to local government officials, the press has been slow to focus on their importance  and on    the responsibilities of local government officials and their impact on public service.

Media attention could have highlighted the significance of who had been elected to the House of Representatives, given the capacity of Congress to set the agenda, whoever may win as president.  Editorial preparation could have gone to those areas where new faces and new challengers could change the landscape of local politics.

Quick count

Adding to the sense of uncertainty about election day was the low profile of the National Citizens’ Movement for Free Elections (NAMFREL), an election watchdog with decades of experience to back its credibility and its findings. In its place was the PPCRV whose experience was more in the education of voters rather than the count. The quick count systems and the broad network that NAMFREL volunteers had established since 1986, usually with the cooperation of media organizations, gave way to a vote count center established by the PPRCV with the Kapisanan ng mga Brodkaster ng Pilipinas (KBP- Association of Broadcasters of the Philippines) as partner.

But on election day itself, with reports of votes recorded quickly by COMELEC, there was no longer any need for the parallel quick count.  And PPCRV’s count would be only an automatic echo of the COMELEC’s quick announcements of the total votes received at the end of the day.

Indeed, automation fulfilled the promise of speed. But complaints and controversies remained, which media would do well to review, if they are to learn the lessons and confront the real challenge of elections in the country after 2010.

CSOs as resource experts

During the 2010 electoral period, civil society organizations led inquiries and produced research on central issues.  The two major stations invited these as resource persons on election day, providing more informed analyses on various issues such as COMELEC’s lack of preparation, poll automation, failure of elections, election fraud, election violence, vote count, among others. Some of these CSOs included the Movement for Good Governance, Youth Vote Philippines, RockEd Philippines, and NAMFREL.

PPCRV, the COMELEC’s citizen arm, had representatives in both television stations for most of the day’s coverage. PPCRV Hotlines were also flashed on the TV screens.

Citizen journalists

A positive change in the coverage of this year’s elections was the training of citizen journalists to enable them to cover election-related news and developments. While ABS-CBN had a number of citizen journalists reporting for them in the 2007 elections, it was only in the 2010 elections that the network began long-term preparations to orient citizen journalists nationwide in election reporting.

“Boto Mo, Ipatrol Mo (Your vote, Your Guard)was a year-long campaign by ABS-CBN to encourage Filipinos to  actively participate in monitoring the conduct of  the 2010 election through citizen journalism. The “Boto Mo, Ipatrol Mo” patrollers used phones, camcorders, and digital cameras in reporting to ABS-CBN. One citizen journalist, for instance, reported the alleged presence of one local candidate in Maasin, Iloilo. Another reported a confrontation in Tuguegarao City between two mayoral candidates. Several reported crowded polling places, long lines, vote-buying and lack of assistance given to senior citizen voters, among others.

GMA 7 also encouraged citizen journalism through “YouScoop,” in which people posted videos and photographs of irregularities and anomalies they had observed during the election period. Ordinary citizens reported, among others, a skirmish in Cavite and children giving out fliers in Tarlac as people voted during election day.

-Jedidah Bandola, Monica Joy Cantilero, and Amalia Airiz Casta

See related stories:

Revisiting the Party-List System (and What the Media Missed)

Media Technology on Election Day 2010: Showdown or Showtime?

CMFR Monitor of the News Media Coverage of 2013 Elections

Given the special nature of the 2013 campaign and elections, the media’s role as credible and critical sources of information and analysis during the election season bears watching. The Center for Media Freedom and Responsibility (CMFR) is monitoring the news media coverage of the 2013 campaign and elections in the context of both the special circumstances in which they were taking place, and the opportunity for improved and meaningful reporting and analysis the exercise offered to the Philippine media. 

CMFR has been monitoring media coverage of Philippine elections since 1992, and in every instance has made recommendations towards the improvement of media coverage. These efforts have not been unrewarded. Changes in media coverage incorporating some of the recommendations of the CMFR monitor in 2004 were evident, for example, in the media coverage of the 2007 elections.

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