Vote buying and electoral reform

CONJUGATIONS - Lila Ramos Shahani - Philstar.com

It’s a week before elections and, if you’re not yet aware of vote buying, you may just have been living under a rock. The booming commercial venture of the past few weeks is now reaching a feverish pitch, and will go on right up to the time the polls close. People who study this unfortunate, though regrettably regular, aspect of our election cycles call it “retail” vote buying—barangay-level individual and family vote buying.

Actual vote buying takes place on many levels and degrees of sophistication, but for the next few days, the emphasis is going to be on the retail trade, mostly among the nation’s all-too-numerous D and E demographic. The motivations of the buyers—the candidates—are already well understood, but since they are also involved at the ABC level, that will also fall under the category of “wholesale” vote buying, which we’ll discuss later on. But, first, let’s look at the people who sell their votes at the retail level. Why do they do it and what does it mean?

Last year, researchers at the Asian Institute of Management’s Policy Center published a study of vote buying during the 2013 mid-term Senatorial election, sampling families from the D and E “classes”—fourth and fifth income quintile, in other words—in 17 Metro Manila cities. Survey questions asked about all types of vote buying both directly and indirectly—the indirect method to help avoid the onus of self-incrimination. For instance, in answer to direct questioning, only 2 percent reported cash vote buying, while of those asked indirectly, 23 percent reported it.

That disparity would seem to indicate a sense of shame or guilt. Lesser disparities have been associated with other forms of vote buying. Questioned about receiving rice or groceries, 8 percent affirmed directly, while about 15.6 percent did so indirectly—and showed an even smaller level of self-consciousness about accepting “any help or favors” in return for votes: 10 percent direct, 15.6 percent indirect. But the question remains, why would a person sell their vote in the first place?

The simple savagery of poverty is, of course, an all-too-compelling answer. While, for individuals, vote prices might start as low as P400 to P500, the “family plan” or “bultuhan” arrangements can amount to P7,000 to P10,000. For people in precarious circumstances, such amounts can be irresistible. Simpler self-justification is available too: though 69 percent reported actually voting for the candidate they accepted bribes from, only about 22 percent reported doing so because of the money or favors.

Look familiar? This is, after all, one of the defining characteristics of patronage politics. Voters expect some show of candidate gratitude in return for their votes.

This brings us much closer to the core of the problem of vote buying. To the degree that people believe the government itself is going to do little or nothing for them, selling their vote—even to the candidate they favor—may well be seen as the only gain they are likely to see from our electoral process.

In last week’s column, I mentioned that there were 556,526 informal settler families in Metro Manila at the beginning of the Aquino administration and that, in 2015, the government had built housing for around 86,000 of them. Leaving to one side the many grateful recipients, this still leaves over 450,000 families open to the belief that the government has not helped them (at least with respect to housing). This is exactly the kind of “voter despair” that invites vote buying. Playing to this sort of despair is precisely the business of the “wholesale” vote market.

Grassroots organizations of every sort form the lowest tier of the wholesale market. This includes NGOs, political organizations at the barangay level, LGUs, clubs and social groups, local family dynasties, churches of every denomination, and even leaders of insurgent groups like the MILF and NPA. Any influential person at any level in any of those groups has the potential to broker wholesale votes for whatever candidate they choose, whether based on cash value or politics. Just like the D and E individuals above, they may accept “favors” from the candidate they already support, or may simply sell to the highest bidder. Vote selling—no matter how based on despair—is, of course, illegal. But wholesale vote brokering is, of course, genuine corruption. Greed—which cannot always be remedied by improved government service—can still hopefully be stymied by it.

These days, however, nothing is more influential than electronic media. The corruptibility of individual writers, radio and TV newscasters and journalists is so well ensconced that “envelope journalism” is a long-established idiom. But where previously, the efficacy of such practitioners was limited to those who saw a certain newspaper edition or watched a certain news broadcast, social media has become a force multiplier, with a single news item being used over and over—put before more and more pairs of eyes.

There is also a new class of political trolls, individuals acting alone out of belief or—more questionably—larger professional groups capable of using every gimmick in an ever-burgeoning bag of marketing tricks. They can manipulate surveys—courting a “bandwagon” effect—trusting the appearance of popularity in place of platform or program. Much of this takes place in a legal gray zone. The services they supply are common in consumer advertising, but are far ahead of legal regulation as applied to electioneering itself.

We thus have a dual system. In the “sunshine” of legal campaign practice, we have the regulated fields of public relations, campaign managers and legally-declared advertising—accounted for as campaign spending—while in the relative “darkness,” we have an equally complex underground media structure that encourages vote buying. The number of poor people that government programs have yet to help vastly outnumbers those who’ve received budgeted aid. Thus, even the sunshine methods work on the dark side as well—to the degree that the vulnerable can be convinced of the changelessness and ultimate hopelessness of their situation. That despair puts even more votes up for sale. 


During the first two months of the official campaign period, candidates had already spent a total of P944,704,295. Source: Nielsen Media and PCIJ

The Solomonic line between light and dark is, of course, the Commission on Elections—or COMELEC itself. Established by the 1987 Constitution as an independent commission—like the Commission on Human Rights and others—it is charged with operating beyond the direct control of Congress or the Executive, with its decisions subject only to court action at the highest level. Our present governmental structure does not seem to favor budgetary expansion of the COMELEC, even when the commission’s members testify before Congress that they have hardly enough budget or personnel with which to do their jobs.

As I’ve written about before, (“Premature campaigning in the Republic of Epal”) COMELEC’s control over even the “sunshine” modes of advertising is entangled in a snare of ungainly, self-contradictory laws. The most significant election reform would include not just election law, but COMELEC as a whole.

In fact, the one-stop-shop for election reform would be a constitutional amendment completely overhauling the structure, powers and budget of COMELEC. Only a constitutional amendment can take the most needed forms of election reforms out of the hands of our regularly elected Congress. But the political will for such a change is clearly lacking.

Much of our political system—dynasties, traditions of patronage, legislators’ “natural” aversion to the passing of laws that threaten incumbency—all speak to the need for a more powerful and effective COMELEC. Underfunded, under- staffed and bound to a tangled web of incumbent-designed laws, neither the government nor COMELEC even have the budget with which to investigate what reforms are needed—at least for now.

For these reasons, it remains a marvel that COMELEC manages to conduct successful elections in the first place. Every election raises the specter of “no-el”— or no election. Every election, some group or other uses some complex, typically ill-considered law to haul the COMELEC through time- and money-consuming court proceedings—often all the way to the Supreme Court—causing dangerous delays. This is in no way a judgment on the propriety of those court cases, but an observation of election laws and Constitutional mandates so obviously in need of drastic reform.

Budget and bidding reform, for instance, would allow us to buy less problematic voting machines, digitize voter registration more effectively—and be able to afford top-line cyber-security to protect voter data against hacker invasion. What we get, instead, is stuff from the lowest bidder.

COMELEC has done well with what it has been able to afford. Electronic voting has greatly reduced the number of people between the freshly cast vote and the final count. Any discussion of the perniciousness of wholesale vote buying would be remiss to overlook that benefit. But better equipment would surely reduce the number of pre-election emergencies and court cases. Electronic voting has already altered even retail vote buying by reducing vote buyers’ ability to confirm compliance. It has given rise to “negative” vote buying, which pays people not to vote—staining their fingers with counterfeit indelible ink before they even get to the polls, making compliance a certainty.

On the selling side of vote buying, what will actually curb vote buying is overcoming the pessimism and despair of the voting poor. If one is to believe the AIM study, the bottom 20 to 40 percent already know the right and wrong of selling their votes. Once enough of them actually feel the effects of our underfunded anti-poverty and development programs—once positive change comes to their lives, in short—the pessimism and despair will no longer be such a strong driver because, like the rest of us, they will simply want to be better served by the government.

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