Philippine `Quick Count' Helps Check Vote

THE 1992 Philippine elections have been a test tube for a host of reforms and innovations, including a quick-count system that involves a partnership between news media and concerned citizens.

But in its first few days of operations, the Media Citizens' Quick Count has come under fire.

Late Tuesday, a memorandum issued by the Rebolusyonaryong Alyansang Makabansa (RAM) - a rebel group within the military - was faxed to major media outlets alleging that the MCQC was "organized and funded" by the United States Department of State and was bent toward supporting pro-US presidential candidate Fidel Ramos.

"We don't get a single cent from the United States," said a MCQC official. "We are funded by Filipinos, corporations, and many different private citizens."

Critics also complained about the sluggish release of results - the competing television networks often being the first to report early results - and foreign correspondents have been ruffled by the MCQC's steep fees for access to data.

On Wednesday, the quasi-governmental Commission on Elections (COMELEC) ordered television stations to stop broadcasting their own quick-count results in an effort to prevent confusion. The COMELEC also asked candidates to refrain from claiming victory until all the ballots are counted. In addition, the COMELEC announced that official results may not be available until the first week of June because of delayed results from remote areas.

The first unofficial results - mostly from urban areas - have Miriam Defensor Santiago leading the presidential race by a slim margin. But Fidel Ramos has taken the lead at times as results come in from the rural areas.

Based in the gymnasium of a private college, the MCQC is an ambitious attempt to provide an independent, parallel vote-tallying process. It is hoped discrepancies between the official results - tallied by hand by COMELEC - and quick-count results, tallied by computers, would draw attention to possible anomalies.

"People want a quicker count based on information gathered by independent sources. Speed is one good deterrent against cheating," says Guillermo Luz, the head of MCQC's general services. Mr. Luz is on leave of absence from his job as executive director of the Makati Business Club.

The MCQC is a consortium of almost all of the country's major news-media organizations - print, television, and radio - as well as citizens' movements.

All MCQC workers, about 1,000 at the national level, are volunteers. Three shifts of workers keep the count going 24 hours a day. Most have taken up residence in the gym, cat-napping between shifts, stretched out on bleachers lining the walls.

In several prominent locations around Manila, MCQC has set up giant billboards where election results are posted. MCQC workers climb rickety ladders and chalk in new results about every four hours.

"Morale is pretty good even though people are getting a little tired." Luz says. "Everything is going smoothly, the computer system is working well." The group hopes to complete their count in 10 to 14 days, slightly faster than the COMELEC.

MCQC's access to voting results is made possible because of COMELEC's attempt at a more transparent, fraud-proof electoral process. "There is a certain security in knowing the results early," says a Manila-based Western diplomat. "It provides for much more stability for a democracy."

More than 50 percent of the 170,300 precincts across the country have fed results to MCQC. Media representatives or accredited "poll watchers" from each precinct have rushed to the nearest city where results from the region are compiled and sent by fax or telex to MCQC in Manila.

The results are still being encoded into MCQC computers.

"There are not very many fax machines in the rural areas," says Carolina Hernandez, a MCQC official, responding to questions about the slow tabulation. MCQC has both private and corporate support. All the computers, copying machines, telephones, fax machines, and other equipment have been loaned by private firms.

Local newspapers and television and radio stations have each contributed 50,000 pesos ($1,923) to the project. And each newspaper has donated three pages of full-page advertisement, while radio and television stations have contributed air time.

But to the consternation of foreign media outlets, a $5,000 fee is being charged for a "gold pass," which allows foreign entities the immediate use of data.

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