The original meaning of “canvass”

A typical scene in the ongoing canvass in Congress unfolds like this: Election documents are brought out for inspection.  Members of the joint committee and lawyers of the candidates take turns describing the condition of the documents.  Somebody then makes a motion to canvass the certificates of canvass.  If there are no objections, the chair proceeds to canvass, i.e., read out the numbers to be tabulated. What this procedure suggests is that the examination of the electoral results is but a preliminary step to canvassing, when, by definition, it is the heart of the process itself.

Congress seems to equate “canvass” with the mere tabulation or addition of election results.  Nothing is more mistaken.  No existing standard definition of “canvass” reduces the word to tabulation or counting.  Historically, the word has been used only in two senses: When applied to elections, it either means to thoroughly scrutinize election results, or to campaign for votes.

Webster’s 1913 Dictionary has the following entries for this word: “(can’vass) v. t. 1. To sift; to strain, to examine thoroughly; to scrutinize; as to canvass the votes cast at an election.  2. To examine by discussion; to debate.  3. To go through , with personal solicitation or public addresses; as to canvass a district for votes; to canvass for subscriptions.   n. 1. Close inspection; careful review for verification; as a canvass of votes.  2. Examination in the way of discussion or debate.  3. Search; exploration; solicitation, systematic effort to obtain votes, subscribers, etc.”

Webster’s New World Dictionary Third College Edition, 1994, contains basically the same meanings: “vt. 1. To examine or discuss in detail; look over carefully.  2. To go through (places) or among (people) asking for (votes, opinions, orders, etc.) – vi. To try to get votes, orders, etc.; solicit.  – n. The act of canvassing , esp. in an attempt to estimate the outcome of an election, sales campaign, etc.

The word “canvass” is obviously not a new word.  That it has survived many usages in a variety of cultures and contexts with its core meanings intact testifies to its relative stability.  But lexicographers may have to watch carefully the nuances that the word is acquiring in Philippine political practice. Its  conventional meaning – to examine or to scrutinize – is being silenced in favor of a previously unfamiliar sense, i.e., a quick mechanical tallying of election results.

The stubborn refusal of the majority of the members of the joint congressional canvassing committee to open source documents like precinct election returns and statement of votes for the purpose of validating the results recorded in disputed certificates of canvass flies in the face of all known meanings of the word “canvass.”  More importantly, it puts in peril the very thing on which the claim to authority of our highest officials is anchored – a clear electoral mandate.

Such a mandate is what our political system needs most at this time. In 2001, Gloria Macapagal Arroyo became president without the benefit of a popular mandate.  In 2004, her claim to the presidency is even more dubious; it totters on the edge of unopened election returns.  Why anyone would like to be president of the country at this time under the same questionable circumstances is truly puzzling. Her allies in Congress could do her and the country an immense favor by opening contested election returns and removing all doubts that she won the presidency fair and square.

Members of the majority claim that opening these boxes is unnecessary.  If they are, why did the Constitution place them at the disposal of Congress? They say that canvassing the election returns is time-consuming.  Well, they and the opposition have already consumed a lot of time debating, instead of meeting each other halfway by defining reasonable parameters and setting a strict time frame for the examination of election returns.  They can, for example, agree to devote weekends to the opening of precinct returns for provinces whose certificates of canvass are manifestly erroneous or fraudulent.

But, no, what we have seen so far is a canvass based on mutual distrust.  The majority thinks the opposition’s only goal is to derail the whole process so that no winner is proclaimed by June 30.  The minority thinks the majority is bent on railroading the whole process by putting every issue to a vote.  The minority reciprocates the majority’s inflexibility by resorting to time-consuming interventions. This is not how politics is supposed to work in a mature democracy. The impasse into which our lawmakers, acting as the National Board of Canvassers, have worked themselves is a virtual invitation to extra-constitutional intervention.

If it happens, the next political upheaval may not spare Congress. The failed hopes and accumulated antagonism of the Filipino poor against the government and its politicians could bring down the entire system established under the 1987 Constitution.  It is amazing that some of the key actors of Edsa I – Joker Arroyo and Nene Pimentel — are not only not doing anything to save the system but are, in fact, working against one another to hasten its collapse.