Archive for October, 2008

Presidential Oracles
October 30, 2008

Everybody wishes they had a crystal ball, especially when it comes time to pick the winner in a presidential race. Here in America, I’ve found that nearly anything can be turned into a predictor for the outcome of the polls. Mostly unscientific, but all fun, these oracles are a welcome relief.

The Redskins Prophecy – If the Washington Redskins win their last home game before the elections, the incumbent stays in power. If the ‘Skins lose, the incumbent goes bye-bye. This prophecy has accurately predicted the outcome of the presidential elections since 1936, getting it wrong only in 2004 when the ‘Skins lost but Bush retained the White House over John Kerry. That’s 17 out of the last 18 elections, for a batting (whoa! mixing sports metaphors today, aren’t we?) average of about 94% .

This year, the Redskins’ last home game will be on Monday, the day before the elections. Reports have it that some bookies have been offering a two-in-one deal: bet on the game, and they’ll place a bet for you on the elections too.

It’s down to a cookie-toss! – Candidates’ wives send their cookie recipes to Family Circle Magazine, which then invites its readers to vote on the recipes. And since 1992, when Hilary Clinton infamously blurted out “I suppose I could have stayed home and baked cookies and had teas,” whoever won the cookie vote then went on to be the FLOTUS. Interestingly, this year, Cindy McCain’s oatmeal butterscotch cookie recipe edged out Michelle Obama’s shortbread cookies.

Bill Clinton’s entry to the cookie-showdown got only 2% of the votes. “Maybe it was the name that killed Bill’s chances,” magazine editors said. “He never should have called it the Blue Dress Special.”

The 7-11 Oracle – Following closely in the tradition of’s mask poll, 7-11 has been putting out Obama and McCain cups, and tracking its sales. In the last cup-poll, Bush’s win was successfully predicted. This year, Obama seems to be leading McCain, but still, Obama supporters have expressed concern that their candidate might not carry North Carolina.

“We’re in the dark. Democrats lost North Carolina even with John Edwards on the ticket with Kerry in 2004, the polls are ambiguous at best, and worst of all, there are no 7-11’s in North Carolina!” the distraught campaigner said.


Campaign Spending
October 29, 2008

After initially saying that he would operate within the limits prescribed by the campaign financing rules, Barack Obama turned around and went on to raise 600 million dollars. John McCain, on the other hand, seeing as how he was one of the principal authors of the public campaign financing rules, has stuck to his guns and has been trying to make do with a little over 84 million dollars.

However you slice it, that is a huge disparity. And Obama – not to mention the American public in general – has no qualms about pouring that money into his campaign. Tonight (Wednesday, 28 October), Obama will put out a 30-minute primetime ad on CBS, NBC, and Fox. The three, each costing nearly a million dollars, puts Obama’s campaign on track to exceeding the US$188 million George W. Bush spent in 2004. Some say, before Tuesday next week, Obama will have spent close to US$230 million just to get elected President of the United States.

Coming from the Philippines, I cannot even begin to express how mind-boggling these sums are. At current rates, the projected final cost of Obama’s campaign translates to a staggering 11.3 billion pesos. That’s more than we spent on the automation of the 2008 Elections in the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao.

So as you can imagine, the first question that came to mind was: “Don’t you have spending limits?” The answer was quick “it depends.”

Public Financing

On the one hand, there is the system of public funding of presidential elections where public money is given to a candidate to help defray the cost of campaigning. The funds come from a taxpayer check-off (basically the taxpayer checks off a box on his tax form giving his consent to having a portion of his tax money go to public campaigning financing).

The way this works is that the candidate who accepts public financing agrees not to raise money from other sources, thereby effectively limiting the amount of money he can spend to the amount of public financing available. In 2008, that’s approximately US$84 million (the amount of public financing is generally indexed to inflation).

So, while there is no direct limit on spending, the amount of public money available – and the pledge not to raise anymore – operates as a spending limit anyway. According to the US Supreme Court, this would not be an infringement of the right of speech because the limitation is voluntary. A candidate, after all, can choose not to receive public money, and therefore not be subject to spending limits.

Self Funded Campaigns

Candidates who refuse to accept public funding needed to raise their own money. As the Supreme Court pointed out, this removes all limitations on spending and the sky literally becomes the limit. Ross Perot did it in 1992, and now Barack Obama is doing it in 2008.

Under a self-finded campaign, the candidate is responsible for raising money through donations. However, while the money can be spent without limit, the amount of money that can be donated is subject to regulation.

Individuals can contribute up to US$2,300 to a presidential candidate during the primary election campaign. If the candidate is nominated and refuses to accept public financing (as Obama did), individuals can contribute another US$2,300. Corporations can’t donate money to a campaign either.

However, there are numerous ways of getting around these restrictions. Political action committees (PACs), for instance, can spend practically unlimited amounts in support of a candidate. Certain types of loosely regulated organizations (527s, named after section of the Internal Revenue Code that governs them) are allowed to raise money, technically for advocacies and not for campaigns – although in reality the distinction is practically non-existent. So, it’d be fair to say that even if 527s were raising money ostensibly for advocacies, the money can also find its way eventually to a candidate’s campaign. And then there are other organizations even more loosely regulated than 527s that can make donations towards parties’ national conventions and inaugurations. Under Federal Election Commission regulations, donations for national conventions and inaugurations are not considered donations to parties. So again, the money – while given for another purpose – still ultimately benefits a candidate’s campaign.

Free Speech

The reason campaign spending isn’t regulated in the States is that they consider spending money a form of free speech. If you limit how much a person can spend, you are basically limiting the free expression of his will.

We can argue – as we do in the Philippines – that there is public interest in limiting the cost of elections. We say we want to ensure a level-playing field where the candidate with less money would not be overwhelmed by the candidate with more money. In other words, the theory is that government should step in to protect the chances of the smaller guy.

Here, the ‘chances of the smaller guy’ are not as crucial to public interest as the protection of the individual’s right to express himself freely. This keys in to one of the core values of Americans – individualism. So, while small candidates are not entirely left to sink or swim on their own – precisely because the system provides for public financing – those who can are also given the opportunity to make sure that the money they have is commensurate to the effort they put in to get it.

Testing the limits

Still, with Obama’s campaign breaking all sorts of spending records, there are many who are disturbed. Owing perhaps to the current financial crisis, some people have expressed reservations about the propriety of spending so much on a campaign.

The limits of the freedom accorded to self-funded campaigns is definitely being tested by Obama. His spending is raising the question of the exact nature of the influence money has on elections, and whether fundamental principles of fairplay are not being somehow affronted. Certainly, Obama’s spending spree has reinforced the perception that elected positions can be effectively ‘bought.’

Will this result in the further evolution of the public campaign financing system? Likely. Among other things, the amount of money that can be spent under that system is widely viewed as insufficient. So the system might see some adjustment in terms of spending limits being raised. Another change might be in the introduction of a requirement that free air time be given to candidates. Free airtime means the candidates get to spend their money on other things, effectively ‘increasing’ the money they have. I should mention that our own Fair Elections Act already provides for free air time for candidates, so it would be interesting to see how this develops in the States.

Poverty and Elections
October 14, 2008

It’s like love and marriage, only malignant.

Poverty and elections are inextricably linked to each other in a perverse sort of equilibrium. Poverty drives people to sell their votes, thereby ensuring that those who buy votes actually have a much greater chance of winning elections. And because those who buy votes are intrinsically corrupt, you can expect that their term as elected officials will probably just worsen the plight of the voters, thereby increasing the number of voters willing to commoditize their right of suffrage, increasing also the number of corrupt politicians in power.

I get dizzy just thinking about it.

One of the most difficult challenges facing the COMELEC is how to break this cycle of commoditization (that’s how I call it, so my apologies to whoever has a better term for the problem).

It is very tempting to say that the COMELEC should go after root causes and that the ultimate solution to vote buying is to eradicate poverty. But that would be stupid. Whole governments have dedicated themselves to the eradication of poverty, but still the problems persist. It would be ridiculous to imagine that the COMELEC can do any better in terms of making people not poor.

This, of course, does not mean that government should stop trying to address the problem of poverty. It’s just that, while government is butting its head against that brick wall, the COMELEC needs to be more creative in addressing vote-buying as a specific consequence of poverty.

  • For instance, we should push for stiffer penalties for candidates – winning or losing – who fail to file expenditure reports.That’s a no-brainer I suppose.
  • We could also probably ask the Commission on Audit to embed a team of government auditors in each campaign to monitor expenditures – not for the purpose of allowing or disallowing anything but simply to ensure that all expenditures are properly reported.
  • And government books, in particular, should be closely audited – ideally by private auditors – during the campaign season to ensure that public funds are not misused.

Apart from these and other innovations, we should perhaps also be suggesting ways to ensure that vote-buying is counter-acted by private citizens. Although still mostly in the realm of the possible – albeit probably not even doable by the COMELEC – these might help:

A performance tracking system – a system by which the performance of elected officials is monitored in such terms of laws passed (if a legislator), innovations and improvements introduced, or income generated for his jurisdiction. Maybe a law should be passed making periodic audited reports to constituencies mandatory. That way, elected officials have to actually show that they’re walking the walk.

Anti-Choice Lists – A performance tracking system sounds good. However, this will only really work if people cared enough about good politicians to actively campaign against bad ones – especially those who do nothing but spout populist rhetoric designed to get maximum votes through stop-gap measures, all at the expense of sound policies.I mean, think about it. In every campaign, you only ever see people campaigning for this and that candidate, and always in glowing terms. Rarely do you see negative campaigns. Of course contending politicians won’t do negative campaigns – especially not in a country where commercials are always for your product versus X and Y – but why can’t concerned citizens just band together and say, “look at this guy’s record! don’t vote for him!” Come to that, despite the awesome freedom of the internet, I don’t think I’ve ever seen a blog slam any particular candidate. Most political blogs come up with their own list of choices. I think the time has come for a list of anti-choices, with or without the benefit of a performance tracking system.

While this does not directly address the problem of poverty, it does have the potential to throw a monkeywrench into the machinery of politicians whose only way into power is through the exploitation of the poor via vote buying.

And sting operations where private persons masquerade as voters to receive vote-buying money while filming the whole transaction via a hidden camera. I have reservations about the admissibility of that sort of evidence in court, but properly done, sting operations can at least shame a corrupt candidate back under whatever rock he crawled out from under.

Poverty is a serious issue, and not just in the obvious ways. The persistence of poverty and the ease with which poverty can be exploited unbalances elections, predisposing to the adoption of populist policies that only worsen the plight of the poor.

At the end of the day, mitigating the effect of poverty on elections is not the COMELEC’s responsibility alone. It is a shared burden; and despite everything that may be suggested today or in the future, for many of us the work still begins with simply refusing the money.

bagongbotante is back
October 4, 2008

In 2007, the Education and Information Department of the COMELEC launched It was labeled as a voter education website to distinguish it from the main website of the agency. After all, the two did address different information needs of the public.

bagongbotante featured informative articles and lots of downloadable materials that voter educators could use. And during the canvassing, results updates were regularly posted on the site.

Over all, it was fairly successful, and the materials were used by many CSOs. And so, there’s a lot of motivation to put up the site again. But this time, instead of using a (dot)com, we’ve gone (dot)ph. It just seemed more right, especially considering we weren’t selling anything.

Now, is up. Well, sorta. The main URL currently redirects to the blog – which has been the easiest part of the site to set up. But we also have a discussion forum up, and work on the front page is getting started. We hope to have the full site operational before the resumption of continuing registration.

So, check it out!