Poll Officials Devise System To Safeguard Filipino Vote

WHEN Filipino voters go to the polls on Monday, they will use cardboard "laptops" to cast their ballots.

The laptop is a single pre-cut piece of cardboard that can be assembled into a three-sided box about the size of a toaster oven. The fourth side folds inward to form a writing board. The voter fills out his ballot inside this "booth" as he balances it on his lap. For rural communities where tables are hard to find, the laptop is a low-cost (75 cent) breakthrough.

"It is possible to come up with simple solutions to complicated problems," says Christian Monsod, a former World Bank economist who now heads the independent Commission on Elections (COMELEC) in the Philippines.

The dedication of more than a handful of idealistic Filipinos to preserving their hard-won democracy is an election story buried under the small mountain of stories on Imelda Marcos's shoes and other theatrics that seem to dominate local and foreign coverage of the election.

COMELEC officials have been working for more than a year to devise a fraud-proof electoral process, create a climate of nonintimidation, and persuade the population through education campaigns that each individual vote is critical.

And there is reason to hope their dedication will pay off. The laptops illustrate the thought - and soul searching - that has gone into the reforms to be tested in an election many Filipinos consider the first truly free and fair vote since the imposition of martial law in 1972.

With only days to go there is no clear leader for the presidency. Polls indicate that people who are undecided outnumber those backing any single candidate.

A nationwide survey released May 6 shows that President Corazon Aquino's former Defense Minister Fidel Ramos leads with 17.6 percent; former judge Miriam Santiago follows closely with 16.4 percent. Marcos-associate Eduardo Cojuancgo came in third with 10.6 percent; Speaker of the House Ramon Mitra fourth with 9.2 percent; and Senate President Jovito Salonga, current Vice President Salvador Laurel, and former first lady Imelda Marcos each with less than 5 percent.

As the country selects its next president from this group, it is advancing in the difficult and slow process of devising a workable form of "Asian" democracy. Planners have had to keep in mind budgets, the lack of electricity, and the past history of electoral manipulation and violence.

COMELEC officials broke down the logistical challenge into manageable tasks.

In a process that began last week under armed guard, COMELEC sent to each of the 170,000 precincts across the 7,000 islands of the Philippines the following: 10 "laptops," 200 numbered ballots, a general instruction book, 20 pens, string, and a bottle of indelible ink to mark voters' thumbnails to prevent citizens from voting twice. No precinct has more than 200 registered voters. School teachers, who tend to know everyone registered in each precinct, will run the stations on election day.

When the polls close, an accredited "poll watcher" for each of the three major political parties, a non-affiliated "citizens-action" representative, and a media representative will be allowed inside to watch teachers unfold and count ballots.

COMELEC has suggested voters bring cameras and flashlights and keep vigil outside until canvassing is finished. The teachers will fill out a seven-page carbonized form and distribute the copies: One is to be sent to Manila, and one each to accredited poll watchers and the media.

Local winners will be announced immediately. In the past, weeks would go by before any election results were announced.

The teachers, under armed guard, will then travel to the city government center with the ballots and a copy of the certificate of canvas.

"At the municipal level, we need to tally about 40 certificates. Do you need a computer for that?" Mr. Monsod asks. "At the provincial level the results of an average of 20 municipalities will be tallied. And, in the capital of Manila, 93 certificates - one from each of the 73 provinces, 11 cities, and nine districts of Manila - will be tallied to come up with the final result. Why do we need computers?"

During the 1986 snap elections, computer operators walked out in protest over what they believed to be computer tampering, one of the events that prompted the overthrow of Ferdinand Marcos.

The distribution of certificates to so many people at so many levels makes the vote difficult to manipulate. Seventy percent of the vote will be counted and certified within seven days, according to Monsod; the final results will be known within 14 days.

The next president will be announced by the new Congress on or around May 25.

To ensure safety at the polling stations, COMELEC also has called for retaining the country's first gun ban, which has been in place for months. There have been about 30 campaign-related deaths. This is down from four years ago, when 150 people were killed during local elections.

Some Filipinos question the lack of a runoff procedure, a fact that virtually assures that the next president, chosen from a field of seven candidates, will win by plurality rather than majority.

"The Constitution is flawed," says William Ortaliz, a former government official who heads a private investment council. "It is the reflection of the fear of another Marcos."

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