The limits of voter education

The Limits of Voter Education was first published on 10 May 2019

IN a little more than a month’s time, Filipino voters will again troop to polling places to select their representatives in government. The candidates, even before the official campaign period started, have fanned themselves out in the hustings, megaphones in hand — figuratively and literally speaking, all in an effort to try and catch everybody’s attention. All of them, especially those who are doing well in the surveys, are expected to contend for a podium finish.

Up for grabs are 12 seats in the Senate, around 300 seats in the House of Representatives (including 59 for party-list representatives), around 1,720 for governors or mayors, and over 16,000 for members of local legislative bodies.

The history of electoral politics in the Philippines is blighted with cases of foul methods used by protagonists to win votes. Vote buying, fraud, and stealing of votes are common post-election complaints. Worst of all, partisanship can be so contentious as to ignite election-related violence.

For the voters and politicians alike, is going through all the trouble, as an essential part of a democratic process, worth it?

Quite often, comments like “corruption in government never stops, regardless of who gets voted into office.” Anybody can get elected to office and nobody cares, insofar as the average voter is concerned. This does not seem to indicate they have forfeited their right to vote; on the contrary, they — within the limits of what they know and guided by their personal beliefs — have been known to perform their civic duty well. The average voter turnout in the Philippines at 65 to 75 percent outperforms most countries that profess love for democracy, with an estimated combined average of 60 percent at best.

Unfortunately, however, voters cannot, on a consistent basis, be expected to pick the right candidate. In a country where 10 percent of the population controls 90 percent of its wealth, the promise of democracy becomes a distant ideal. As John Stuart Mill said, “he who controls the stomach controls the will.”

Compounding the voter’s lack of free will is lack of information. Recently, a group of individuals—calling itself the People’s Choice Movement (PCM)—publicly endorsed 10 senatorial candidates. Reports say the PCM is a group of individual leaders coming mostly from different faith-based organizations from the Catholic, evangelical and Protestant communities in the country.

Reports further said that the PCM “have screened 62 senatorial candidates and 30 were removed based on two ‘knock-out issues’: candidates must believe in God and must be against Charter change and federalism.” Of the remaining 32, the 10 highest scorers based on their “Gabay Kristo” guide were declared the selected candidates. The guide included four categories: character and honor, competence and ability, faithfulness to public service, and faithfulness to God, the Constitution and the law.

The PCM’s methodology is suspect for several reasons. In one of the two killer issues—Charter change and federalism—proponents must have assumed that people fully understand what is on the table. We can ask the guy next to us what he thinks of federalism and, hearing whatever he has to say, one can argue that issues like Charter change and federalism are better discussed in venues other than a supposedly academic and nonpartisan process, like sieving candidates for senator. The point is Charter change and federalism have their merits and demerits, and the country may deprive itself of a best-value candidate simply because he or she supports Charter change and federalism.

Ranking the “qualified” candidates based on the GabayKristo is also tricky. The guide’s elaborate set of criteria for selecting candidates can be replaced by one word — elite — and I can easily come up with the same list. This is of course unfair to them, but applying the criteria with rigor means there is gold at the end of rainbow for lesser known candidates like Jose Matula and Luther Meniano, both of Partido Manggagawa at Magsasaka. As it is, no one knows if they have merited at least an asterisk from evaluators. More to the point: applying the criteria with cold-blooded rigor can tell us that those who have been declared as nuisance by the Comelec for lack of means to support their campaign at a credible scale might have outranked the 10 who made it to the PCM list.

Manila Auxiliary Bishop Broderick Pabillo said the PCM had already done its part in helping people choose their next leaders, it was now the responsibility of the faithful to ensure that these “deserving candidates” were elected to the Senate.

Voter education will always be helpful, even necessary, in a democracy. And the PCM deserves support for its initiatives. However, given the limitations of the average voter, the way it is presented puts inordinate pressure on the voting public, as if the future of the country depended on them.

One may look the other way for the cure for our ailing political system. Politicians, unlike the voter, will not lose their livelihood for breaking the will of their masters. They can afford to innovate, break tradition, and truly lead the way. All they need is a conscience that is receptive to the notion of reward and punishment that can come around even centuries after the polling places have closed.


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