By Alexandra Gabrielle Francisco
Many interns from our batch looked forward to covering the elections. The opportunity comes only once every three years and the first ever automation of the nationwide polls was a chance only few were willing to miss. It felt like being part of history, a giant leap for a country believed to be falling behind its neighbors in just about every mark of development.
Luckily for me, my internship with the Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism (PCIJ) gave me a front seat in the polls at the Camanava (Caloocan, Malabon, Navotas, and Valenzuela Cities) area, home to the Oretas of Malabon, Tiangcos of Navotas and the infamous Asistio-Malonzo and Asistio-Echiverri rivalries of Caloocan. Election Day was a day of firsts for me—first election coverage, first time to vote and first trip to Malabon and Navotas, areas less frequented by the media on election day.
The areas were practically conjoined. Our team, made up of myself, senior researcher Annie Ruth Sabangan and junior researcher JC Cordon, ended up crossing Caloocan, Malabon and Navotas territories in a ten-minute tricycle ride. (The driver himself got lost.) If that happened on May 10, we would have gone home empty-handed. Important lesson number one: Visit the area you were assigned in before the big day comes.
Out on the field
The two-day visit did more than familiarize us with the area. Two days before 13,000 Navotas residents swarmed one of the schools electrical wiring was still being fixed. The sleek, high-tech PCOS machines seemed so out of place in the dilapidated rooms. As Sabangan put it, it was like modern equipment in a “Jurassic” setting. A part of the second floor, made of wood, felt like it would fall apart.
The final testing and sealing in one Malabon school might have had better rooms and electrical wiring, but everyone was still grappling with the system, including the supposed IT technician. In Navotas, the final testing was delayed by almost three hours. When nine PCOS machines hung up on the teachers, we thought we already had the scoop of the election season.
Apparently, the Board of Election Inspectors (BEI) simply put in the wrong CF cards in the wrong slots in the PCOS machines. It was just a matter of knowing which parts go where, something the technician—the only technician assigned to that school—should have known immediately.
These little boo-boos, which might have been catastrophic mishaps had the machines not been cooperative on Election Day, were important details we found out two days prior to the elections. While the government was reassuring the public that any problem on Election Day was negligible, the stories we found in Malabon and Navotas reiterated that the possibility of failed automation was very real.
The BEIs found the solution to their problems through trial and error troubleshooting. The Filipino attitude of making do with any situation served them well. They would employ the same skills in policing crowds of voters eager to experience the new system and eager to get out of the humid, jam-packed rooms.
Anyone who voted that day knew of the unbearable heat, but imagine being a BEI member forced to check name after name in a list of a thousand voters or an unlucky voter waiting four hours just to vote. Foreign groups may have lauded the country for successfully holding “smooth” elections, but they were not there to wait in long lines or to plow through the sea of campaign fliers left on the school grounds. They did not see the children giving away campaign materials on Election Day, when campaign season and all forms of campaigning should have ended on Saturday.
The automated elections, mired with suspicions of rigging and entrenched in a political system of fraud, violence and impunity, has been guarded by the media since its conception. To partake in this watch, no matter how small the contribution, takes public participation to the next level.
Francisco is interning for the summer at the Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism.