It's the canvassing, stupid.
That's the lesson of "Hello Garci," according to independent poll watchers mobilizing to guard against fraud in the May 14 elections.
In the past, watchers tended to focus more on the conduct of elections -- on the counting at the precinct level and on the integrity of the election returns (ERs), said Carlos Medina, one of the convenors of the newly organized Lente (Legal Network for Truthful Elections).
An ER is the document on which is tallied the 200-250 votes cast per precinct.
"Before there was dagdag-bawas (vote-padding and -shaving), we thought that cheating was mostly done on election day itself, through vote-buying, flying voters, etc., and during the counting. But it is at the canvassing that wholesale fraud is committed; so the 'lesson' is not to lose focus come canvassing time," he said.
Eric Alvia, secretary general of the National Citizens' Movement for Free Elections (Namfrel), echoed Medina's concern: "We only focused on ERs before."
With the country still stuck with manual elections, it takes days for volunteers to start spotting discrepancies between individual ERs and the resulting Certificates of Canvass (COCs), the tally of ERs gathered in a municipality or city, he lamented.
By the time municipal, city and provincial COCs start coming out, "two to four weeks" had already passed since Election Day.
In that span of time, Alvia said, a lot of "human interventions" could have taken place -- the bribery of canvassing board members, tampering or switching of COCs.
And by then, at the height of the canvassing process, the number of active Namfrel volunteers would have dropped to "25 percent" of their original size during Election Day.
"Only one out of four volunteers would still be reporting. The rest would have returned to their jobs, businesses, schools," Alvia said.
Their ranks have so thinned that there would be no one left to "return to the municipality or city" where the discrepancies occurred and produce the ERs covered by questionable COCs. (An ER is considered the more reliable source document since it was produced "closest" to the polling day, executed by the teachers who oversaw the balloting.)
"Who else can we give instructions to?" Alvia said. Namfrel may have accumulated data possibly indicating massive fraud, yet that data could not be "acted upon" quickly enough for lack of personnel.
With Lente around, perhaps this missing element would now be in place -- a recognized, nonpartisan legal team that can immediately file a manifestation or protest based on the information gathered by the other volunteers, Alvia said.
While the watchers have the zeal, the power of faith, and probably the numbers to cover enough ground, they realize they are up against formidable, mostly unseen forces capable of pulling off another "Hello Garci."
With "lessons" learned from the "Garci" scandal, the poll watchers undoubtedly need to retool against increasingly sophisticated modes of cheating, whether these are done at the precincts, at the canvassing boards or, worse, in higher circles only wiretapping experts can penetrate.
After all, it still took political insiders, intelligence operators, and partisan figures -- not whistle-blowers from the ranks of poll watchers -- to pry the Garci scandal wide open in June 2005, more than a year after the May 2004 presidential elections.
Wiretapped conversations purportedly between President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo and former Election Commissioner Virgilio Garcillano were made public, indicating she may have stolen the 2004 presidential election. The President and Garcillano have denied any wrongdoing.
1st time: Lawyers as poll watchers
Lente, the new group joining the old watchdogs like Namfrel and the Parish Pastoral Council for Responsible Voting (PPCRV), believes that adding lawyers, paralegals and law students to the army of poll watchers could significantly deter any schemes to manipulate the election results.
That army includes half a million volunteers called to action by the Catholic Church in the country.
"Whatever they may be planning out there, we will be waiting when they start to implement it on the ground," said Medina. "With our presence, they better come up with other ideas."
Medina, a law professor who is also executive director of the Ateneo Human Rights Center, said the coming elections would mark the first time lawyers would form part of the poll-watching "structure."
In previous elections, lawyers figured in the canvassing mainly as private attorneys for the competing politicians. This time, Medina said, there will be Lente members working simultaneously with Namfrel or PPCRV volunteers, the latter being mostly laypersons not versed in the legal technicalities of a poll canvass.
Lente, which aims to deploy at least 9,600 lawyers, paralegals or law students nationwide, can be most useful in applying the "lessons" poll watchers have learned from the "Garci" episode, he said.
Just what are those numerical tricks poll watchers are trained to spot when examining ERs and COCs? Alvia gave actual samples that Namfrel has culled from past elections:
• The figure "lllll-ll" got written as "five two" instead of "seven." This was spotted in Marikina in 1998.
• The numeral "19" got written as "ninety." It happened in Manila in the 2001 polls.
• With just two strokes of a pen, "1,382" in the municipal COC became "4,382" in the provincial COC; Zamboanga del Norte, 2001.
• "2,599" grew almost five-fold and became "12,599," while "13,784" morphed into "28,784." This was documented in two towns in Pangasinan in 1995. Twenty-two other towns in that province produced a total of 112,994 "extra" votes.
• And in the 2004 elections, this was encountered in Tawi-Tawi: With already 89 percent of the votes canvassed in the Namfrel Quick Count, Presidential Candidate A had garnered only 15,925 votes against Candidate B's 58,292 votes. B was thus enjoying an insurmountable lead of 42,367 votes.
But after the remaining 11 percent or 9,553 votes were canvassed, the official tally showed B getting a total of over 49,803 votes over A's 33,634 votes. B still won in the province, yes, but by a much narrower margin.
This was because about 31,000 votes cast for B went instead to A, Alvia said. Similar occurrences were also observed in seven other provinces in Mindanao, wherein a total of 598,560 "B" votes got moved to the "A" column.
Known forms of cheating
There are forms of cheating which poll watchers can easily detect, he said, such as vote-buying, the use of "flying voters," ballot-box switching, and various tactics to sow confusion, delay the process, or discourage people from trooping to the poll booths.
But beyond the precincts, there would be hazy areas way outside their radar. Alvia wondered: What if candidates themselves connive to engage in dagdag-bawas? A winning senatorial candidate with a safe lead willing to donate some of his votes to a party mate so the latter can make it to the Magic 12?
"Of course, we cannot -- and will not -- monitor phone calls. That's not part of our mandate," said former Ambassador Henrietta de Villa, PPCRV national chair.
As the accredited citizen arm of the Comelec, the Church-based group aims to deploy half-a-million volunteers or at least two per precinct nationwide. Established in 1992, it will be monitoring its 16th elections this May 14.
"But we can't be frustrated. What we are doing is living a part of our (Catholic) faith. Our mere presence is about restoring credibility to our elections, otherwise more and more will just shy away from them," De Villa said.
( www.inquirer.net )