Vote-buying and its deniability

“What do you make of this, Kuya?” my younger brother Ambo, auxiliary bishop of San Fernando, Pampanga, asked me last Monday, as he showed me an envelope addressed to him containing the campaign leaflet of a party-list nominee and a crisp P200 bill. “All the other priests at my parish got the same envelope through the mail,” he said. “I think the sender had no idea we are priests.”

The brazenness of the act riled the good bishop. He is the provincial coordinator for Pampanga of the Parish Pastoral Council for Responsible Voting (PPCRV). I told him that if it had been sent by someone running for mayor, it was likely to be a clever form of black propaganda concocted by an opponent. But, who would want to do something like this merely to discredit one party-list nominee? More than 100 party-list organizations are vying for seats in the elections.

I felt certain that the envelope could only have come from the person who was explicitly soliciting votes in exchange for a small amount of cash. The question is: Why would anyone be so stupid as to attempt something so patently illegal? By analyzing the possible answers to this question, we might, I think, begin to understand why no one has been jailed for vote-buying.

My hunch is that this crooked and desperate politician (CDP) was acting on the basis of some educated assumptions about our political culture. First, that the average Filipino voter, having no strong preferences for the party-list slot, would be inclined to vote for CDP’s party-list group for taking the trouble to write and attach a token of his gratitude. Second, that the few who might take offense at being offered a bribe would not be inclined to make a big fuss about it. The worst they could do is simply not vote for CDP’s party-list group. And third, that the rare citizen who might feel so outraged at being bribed as to actually decide to file an official complaint would not get very far anyway. CDP could just deny that the envelopes were sent by him. Indeed, he would say precisely that it is stupid for anyone to do anything clearly illegal and leave traces of the deed.

Deniability—that is the crux of this insidious practice of vote-buying. It is almost next to impossible to produce solid evidence that can stand in court. That is why allegations of rampant vote-buying are typically treated as no more than the expected noise from an ongoing political contest.

On Election Day, I had a chance to listen to the detailed account of a voter from my town who claims that she was given a ballot that bore preshaded ovals for the local positions.  According to her, a board of election inspectors (BEI) member whom she personally knew handed her a ballot, saying, “Oh, it’s you.  I made a mistake; I’ll just give you this ballot.”  Then she pulled out a ballot from under the ballot stack and gave it to her in a folder.

The voter then proceeded to fill up the oval spaces for her senatorial and party-list choices.  When she turned to the obverse side of the ballot containing the names of the local candidates, she noticed that the ovals across some names had been shaded. She said she didn’t mind that the choices for governor, vice governor, and congressman had been made for her.  At first, she thought it was funny that the ballot seemed to have accurately read her mind—until she got to the position of mayor. This was the principal reason she was casting her vote.  She had pledged her vote to the candidate of her choice, and was aghast to find that it was the slot for the rival candidate that had been marked.

What she did next is quite interesting, and worth documenting, because it is a predictable reaction. Instead of protesting then and there, she decided to shade the oval for her own choice of mayor. As she stood up to insert the ballot into the PCOS machine, she whispered her anxiety to the person tasked to assist voters. “I’m just wondering why my ballot had been preshaded.” In an equally low voice, the person said: “That’s what she was telling you about earlier,” pointing to the teacher who had given her the marked ballot. Perplexed, the voter dutifully allowed her ballot to be inserted into the machine, half-expecting it to be rejected. The machine accepted it, and displayed a sign congratulating her.

When she got home, she told her siblings about her unusual experience. The more she thought about it, the more she felt that she had been taken advantage of by the teacher who gave her the marked ballot. She felt confused, stupid, and violated. By chance, one of her older siblings was a PPCRV volunteer, which is how her misgivings eventually ripened into a sworn statement. I have heard reports that the same pattern of vote-buying had taken place in many other parts of the country, but few people have dared to expose and denounce it.

I suspect that the incident is part of a system of political transaction that is astounding in its simplicity. Households in a given barangay are offered money just before the election. Those who take the money are marked; they are the ones who are given preshaded ballots. Being complicit to the act, they are not expected to complain. Our perplexed voter complained because she wasn’t aware that anyone in her household had accepted money. Unfortunately, her complaint will probably not gain traction. She has no concrete proof to offer. It’s her word against that of the BEI member.

I refuse to think that this practice is rampant since it clearly requires the collusion of the public school teachers who constitute the BEIs.  Perhaps, more than the vote-buying itself, it is the thought that the teachers of our children could be corrupted that is disheartening.