Senior citizens and automation

published 3 May 2009, MST

Former President Joseph Estrada topped the mock elections conducted by the Valenzuela City Office of Senior Citizens Affairs on March 29 and 30. Maybe it was the demographics—the 200 or so participating senior citizens from four barangays in the northern city may have formed part of Estrada’s “masa” constituency.

Or it could be, says OSCA head Pablo Marcelo, a reflection of older folks’ penchant for sticking with the devil they know. “They already know who Estrada is. Why risk voting for somebody new?”

Small wonder, then, that the accompanying demonstration of the automated election system by the Commission on Elections’ district office was marked by sheer apprehension, unanswered questions and lingering doubts. The poll body’s officials explained the workings of the new system to the audience, most of whom were distrustful of the technology altogether. “Old people are more comfortable doing things the way they are used to doing them,” Marcelo continued. Not even the bad press received by the manual system of voting in the past— its susceptibility to delay and manipulation —can make the seniors prefer the strange-looking precinct count optical scan machines over the familiar ballots with the blanks on them and the “tara” system of counting votes.

Questions during the demonstration, Marcelo said, centered on finding of precincts and the accomplishment of the very long ballot, even if the circles beside the candidates’ names just need to be shaded. “Even if they brought a ‘codigo’, which is what is normally done by those who don’t want to forget any candidates and want to finish fast, the seniors found that just finding the names they want to vote for took a long time. And what if your eyesight is poor? You have a real problem there. ”

On the average, Marcelo added, senior citizens took nine minutes to finish voting during the mock polls.

The senior citizens also worried about how the machines, especially those that will be deployed to far-flung areas in the country, would be able to withstand rain, heat, or even power outages. “We don’t know what a single drop of water, which can be considered a foreign body, can do to them. If the machines malfunction, what are we going to do? How can we bring ourselves to trust the results?”

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Over in San Juan City, citizens are worried not so much about the malfunction as they are about the manipulation of the machines in order to generate desired results.

“It’s a leap of fear, not a leap of faith,” says Arsenio Cuadrante, president of the Little Baguio, San Juan Senior Citizens Association. And if the April 9 demonstration conducted by the Comelec and the Parish Pastoral Council for Responsible Voting were to be any indication of the automated system’s reliability, then the whole process will be... a joke, with comedians mangling the whole process.

Indeed the demonstration, conducted at the behest of the San Juan Civilian Volunteers Association, started off sober enough. In a comfortable venue at the Connecticut Arcade Showroom of the Greenhills Shopping Center, the Comelec gave a powerpoint presentation—in English, of course—providing the audience an overview of how the automated system of elections is supposed to work. The Comelec also showed how voters could save themselves a lot of trouble looking for their precincts by using the online precinct finder in the poll body’s Web site Voters just had to key in their name and date of birth and they would know to which precinct they are assigned.

The audience, which Cuadrante estimates at around 100, was also shown how to accomplish the ballots so that they don’t get rejected by the machine. Four or five people were asked to “vote” using movie stars’ names on the ballots instead of names of actual candidates. Voters were shown how to insert the ballots into the machines. Everybody burst into applause every time the machine accepted a ballot.

But the senior citizens did not likely applaud the presence of two comedians from TV5, who taped an episode of their show with the demonstration as background. Ariel and Maverick, sporting wacky hairdos and costumes, cracked jokes throughout the event and distracted the people who trooped to the arcade expecting to be enlightened.

Sadly, Cuadrante feels, the horsing around trivialized the seriousness of the entire exercise especially for senior citizens who were still overwhelmed by the novelty of automation.

Comelec harps on how the technology is the answer to our problems but offers little assurance and tells us little about how we can be sure our votes will be counted properly. As a result, “[the seniors] were dumbfounded, they were just sitting there, they feel they have just put their votes and their fate at the mercy of the machines and afterwards there’s nothing they can do. We just feel so helpless,” he adds.

So what do they propose to do, ditch progress and stick to the old evils we know so well?

“Oh no, it’s not the technology we doubt. Progress is always good,” Cuadrante says, and it figures because he agreed to answer my questions via email and clarify some points via chat. “What we are insecure about is the integrity of the people running the show. There are too many lawyers and too few auditors and information technology experts we can trust in Comelec. How can they perform the vote-counting function well? Also, when the machine verdict comes out, is there no way we can challenge its accuracy? Do we just make a choice between taking it and leaving it?”

* * *

A mere seven days before the elections, it does not appear that the apprehension is limited to Filipinos 60 years old and above. Sure, automation is always a step in the right direction. That’s assuming that there are enough safeguards, checks and balances in place. Are there? We don’t know. What we know is that there are people telling us that there won’t be. How can we be sure they don’t have an agenda for themselves as well?

What a relief it must be to go forward in time and find out if automation would really work—or if it would fail. Next time the Comelec’s information drive should be more aggressive, and more persuasive, enough to convince the staunchest of old-school thinkers to get out of their stinking comfort zones.

Then again, if the results of next week’s polls come through fast and credible as promised, then that’s the best argument one can hope to have for the automated process. That out of the way, we can proceed to working on voters’ decision making process in choosing leaders. And then we can stop just settling for the people we get and start actively electing those who, rhetoric and black propaganda aside, can make us embrace long-overdue economic progress and democratic maturity.