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Vote Early, Vote Often
Why do people cheat in the elections? Simply because they can

By Wilhelmina Paras / Manila
Asiaweek, May 8, 1998

ROMEO MACALINTAL KNOWS A thing or two about election fraud. He is a 50-year-old lawyer who represents candidates claiming to have been cheated out of a seat in the Senate, local assembly, town council or even school board. Let's just say that his practice is thriving. These days, he says, there are only two ways to tamper with a vote: when ballots are cast or as they are counted. But when the late Ferdinand Marcos was in power, says Macalintal, things were a lot easier. For example, when the government wanted to ratify a new Constitution in 1973, officials held informal votes around the country. At town meetings, people simply raised their hands, apparently to signal approval of the document. Government photographs of the votes appeared in newspapers and on television. But, says Macalintal: "What really transpired was that the people were asked: 'Who wants a sack of rice?'" And everyone raised their hands.

Even in more democratic times, vote tampering is all too common, or all too often suspected. Resurreccion Borra recently stated that the 1992 and 1995 elections were tainted by fraud. Specifically he said that at the precinct level figures were "manufactured" or returns switched. For many the only surprise about the revelation was its source. Borra is executive director
of the official Commission on Elections (Comelec). This was the first time that a poll administrator publicly admitted the practice of taking votes from one candidate and giving them to another (called dagdag-bawas, or increase-decrease).

Why do people cheat in Philippine elections? Maybe because they can. As Telebert Laoc, executive director of the National Citizens' Movement for Free Elections (Namfrel), says: "The system of manual counting allows us to cheat without much difficulty." Candidates, or campaign workers, can bribe or intimidate people to vote their way or to stay home. They can suddenly change the location of polling stations, knock voters off the registration lists, mark ballots early, fake ballots or accompany illiterate or disabled voters inside the polling booths to offer advice on whom to choose. Not only has election-rigging been too easy in the Philippines, but proving fraud has been too difficult. Many believe candidates in the coming polls will not find things to be much different.

The simplest way to swing an election is to just buy the votes. Prices vary, but the method is nearly always the same. Once candidates strike a deal, they give voters carefully folded pieces of blank paper and carbon paper so they can make a copy of their ballot. The candidates, after all, don't want to be duped. Fay Marie, a Namfrel volunteer, saw it happen during local elections in 1984 in Catmon, a town in Cebu province. She says: "In a store near the polling station there was a man who paid out the money as soon as the voter showed him a piece of carbonized paper."

Intimidation is common too. In 1986, in a town called Asturias in Cebu, the barrio captain was about to accompany a voter into the polling booth. The voter didn't need help, though, and a farmer named Juan Kabasi stopped the local chief. Several days later, Kabasi was ambushed as he was walking home. He was shot, stabbed, hacked and left for dead. But someone found him and took him to a small hospital. Later Namfrel had him transferred to Cebu's best hospital and paid his bill. He never fully recovered.

For all that, Laoc says: "Vote buying and changing numbers in precincts is only effective at the local level." Retail cheating, he calls it. The real business is at the provincial and city levels, where "wholesale" cheating can take place. Someone just has to change the numbers on the official election returns.

Macalintal's first case, in 1984, involved this kind of fraud, he says. In Nueva Vizcaya, in northern Luzon, Carlos Padilla ran for assemblyman against Leonardo Perez, a former Comelec chairman. According to Macalintal, Padilla (his client) won by more than 19,000 votes. But he says the returns were "disregarded and invalidated" by Comelec chairman Dick Santiago. Instead,
"Santiago accepted spurious returns" that apparently had no serial numbers and were printed differently than the original ballots, says Macalintal. Padilla lost his appeal, but successfully ran in the 1987 congressional elections.

Perhaps the most famous fraud charge was made by presidential hopeful Miriam Santiago in 1992. As Namfrel was counting votes from Metro Manila, the immigration commissioner was leading the favorite, Fidel Ramos. But he edged ahead as returns from the provinces came in. In the final count Ramos won 24% of the votes, Santiago about 20%. Because of her strong
showing early in the polls, Santiago and her supporters believed she had been cheated out of the presidency. She filed a protest with Comelec, but the cost of recounting the ballots was prohibitive. Santiago's case was declared void when she won a Senate seat in 1995.

Not all appeals are lost causes, though. Macalintal likes to tell this story: "In 1988, my client was close to winning a mayoral race. There was one precinct's return that would ensure his win. Evidently his opponent knew this. He hired a magician, one who 'eats fire.' When a teacher opened the precinct's returns, the magician lit a match and blew fire onto the ballots. We
managed to save about half of them. Then we went to Comelec, which reconstructed the returns from its copies." Macalintal's client was proclaimed the winner.

Magicians are not the only ones to use tricks either. When snap elections were called in 1986, Ricky Lopera quit his job at Colgate-Palmolive to work full-time for Namfrel. The day before the election, he had to take a large box of the organization's tally forms from a remote barrio to Butuan City. At a military checkpoint, soldiers boarded his bus looking for Namfrel people and materials, he says. While the soldiers were searching passengers, Lopera wrote "Colgate-Palmolive Products" on his box. When a soldier started to open it, Lopera told him: "If you do, you are responsible to the company for the products." The soldier hesitated, then asked Lopera for proper identification, which he still had. Lopera and the tally forms got through.

Dodging trouble is one thing, seeking amends is another. In the 1995 Senate polls, Aquilino Pimentel contends that he was a victim of dagdag-bawas in the race won by Juan Ponce Enrile. Pimentel, a former senator, launched a protest. Three years and millions of pesos later, only 25% of the votes have been reviewed.

Justice is not always served, even when the case is clear-cut, says Regalado Maambong, one of Comelec's most-respected officials. He investigated a complaint about the 1995 mayoral poll in the town of Ternate in Cavite province south of Manila. The case stemmed from a discrepancy between the number of votes recorded and the number of votes obtained from the physical count of the ballots. The inconsistencies "inexorably show that electoral fraud was committed affecting the results of the election for mayor," says Maambong.

Conrado Lindo was declared the winner, but the incumbent, Rosario Velasco, filed a protest and won. Macalintal, Lindo's lawyer, says the regional trial court that first heard the case allowed Velasco to present photocopies of the ballots, "which were fake to begin with and obviously differed from the genuine in terms of the print quality." Lindo appealed.

Maambong said the matter was particularly significant because "it is a rare example of a fraudulent scheme to win an election. It also tested the commission's mettle. People could see if it would uphold the integrity of the electoral process." He was asked to write the commission's decision, and he ruled in favor of Lindo. But the other officials overturned his decision. Maambong, who
retired in February "with a heavy heart" as he puts it, is running for governor of Cebu. Apparently he still has some faith in the system.

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