Friday, May 14, 2010

With a Skeptical Eye

Disregard for a moment whether your candidate won or lost (or if you're the candidate, whether you won or lost): Were you happy with the conduct of the election last May 10?  Were you convinced of the results?  Was it, as they like to say, honest, credible, accurate, and efficient?

If you must know, I voted for Noynoy Aquino and Mar Roxas.  Why?  Basta!  I've had my say, as you all have (unless you were one of those unfortunates who were not able to vote.)  This choice I don't need to justify to anyone.  Batting one-for-two, I should just let things lie.  My instinct, anyhow, tells me that the outcome reflects how the country as whole feels.'s in my nature to doubt until I arrive at some mental certainty.  My gut feel might point me to the right answer, but I'd like to know, to the fullest extent possible, whether it is or isn't correct.

The essential question, then: are you convinced of the results of the election?  Why or why not?

May 10 was an exercise in extremes.  On the one hand, for many the act of voting took longer than it did in past elections; and on the other, the results came out faster than it did in past elections.  And when the first numbers came out as they did -- first a trickle, then a torrent, all within 24 hours since the start of polls -- whatever misgivings we might have had simply disappeared.  Results in!  Ecstasy!

"Stunned" is how the Philippine Daily Inquirer put it.  And indeed we were.  Losers scarcely had time to object, winners likely gaped at their unexpected good fortune.  Stunned.  Because of the speed.

Speed.  Speed is good, right?  We didn't need to wait on tenterhooks, we got the picture straightaway.  Does speed contribute to credibility?  Most certainly!
But does speed alone equate to credibility?

Like gawkers hypnotized by a sports car long sped by, I suspect we may have been overawed by the rapidity with which the results came.  But were the results correct? Speed alone can't tell you that.

Put aside the aggregate results for a moment: are you certain that the candidates you marked on the ballet (intent) were the same candidates recorded by the machine (actuality)?  Even at this elemental level, you can't be.  The PCOS machine never gave you any such confirmation, only that it accepted your ballot.  You have to accept on faith that it did.

(Aside: we have far more jokers in the country who voted for the disqualified Acosta than all the straight men who voted for Madrigal, de los Reyes, and Perlas combined.  Acosta must be having a good laugh.)

Just about the only measure of certainty afforded us is the random manual count.  You can't be sure that your votes were recorded and tallied correctly, so be joyful at least in the knowledge that somehow somewhere someone else in the Philippines enjoys that privilege.

What if the discrepancies between the manual count and the PCOS count prove to be too great?  Uh, let's not go there.

In the absence of this hard proof, what else can we go with to attribute the credibility of the elections?  That the surveys largely match the results?  In the last surveys, Noynoy Aquino took in 35%, matching more or less (well, more, really) his 40% showing in the election tallies.  The same, more or less, with the other candidates.  I take a little comfort in this, but not too much, because then I have to look at Jojo Binay and his come-from-behind upset of Mar Roxas.  Where did that come from?

Discounting for the moment the statistics behind Binay's rise, can we -- should we -- rely on the correlation between the surveys and the election results?  Must surveys now be part of the machinery to ensure the credibility of elections?  Are the elections only credible if they match the surveys?

In this territory it gets just as murky, if not so: just as we have to trust the PCOS machine to have read our votes correctly, we also have to trust in the good will and the analytical tools of survey firms.

What then? Count everything by hand like we did in the past?  Back to delays and all the attendant problems?  Days, maybe weeks of waiting?  Oh, Gilgamesh, please, no!
Yet for all its problems, a manual count at the precinct level has the advantage of being public, of being verifiable (assuming, of course, it takes place in relative peace, minus shenanigans.) 

We don't have the same guarantee and safeguard with the automated system as it is currently implemented.  Right now, the most we can really be sure of is that the votes were counted correctly in x percent of the precincts.

(Try this: next time you withdraw money, don't count all the bundles, just count a couple.  After all, if these are correct, all the others must be, right?)

As it is, we have to just trust the COMELEC, arguably the agency with the most trustworthy track record in the whole of Philippine history.

Really, what have we got to go on?  It seems to me that, speed aside, the credibility of these elections hinges on the fact that Noynoy Aquino, who set himself up as the opposite of this administration, should have won by such a wide margin over the next closest rival, Joseph Estrada, also no friend of this administration. (Come to think of it, does this administration really have any friends?  During the campaign, "Arroyo" was a term used to vilify.)  On this basis, it then follows that all other results must be correct.

But what if: the margins were much narrower?  What if a candidate perceived to be friendlier to Arroyo had won?  Would we still say that the elections were credible?

I don't have any answers here.  Perhaps I really shouldn't be asking too many questions: after all, the guy I voted for won, right?  But I need a basis for my believing, if not a tangible one, then at least one that can be properly inferred.  As it is, it escapes me right now.