"The fragile and evolutionary state of Philippine democracy begs an essential question."
Issues that are highly contentious or controversial are best discussed when the fires of contention or controversy are not burning so intensely. This is particularly true of issues of a political or religious nature. In the domain of politics, one of the most hotly debated issues relates to the role played by communication technology in electoral contests.
Enormous strides were made in the field of communication technology during the 20th century. This is particularly true of the field of opinion-sampling. The business of designing survey samples and gathering and analyzing opinions has come a long way since the pioneering days of George Gallup and his then-modest organization.
Today opinion sampling technology is highly sophisticated and diverse, and opinion survey organizations undertake opinion sampling for all sorts of clients and all kinds of client needs. Their clientele includes candidates for public office and political parties that want to get measures of voter sentiments toward the candidates. The opinion samplings are undertaken at several points during an electoral campaign, with the final sampling done shortly before Election Day. They generally do a good job.
Over the years, in election after election, all or most of the senators eventually proclaimed by the Comelec (Commission on Elections) have been the Magic 12 winners selected by the respondents of the last pre-election survey conducted by this country’s two leading opinion sampling institutions: SWS (Social Weather Stations) and Pulse Asia. In their final pre-Election Day surveys, SWS and Pulse Asia indicated that all the Magic 12 slots would be filled by pro-administration candidates and that not one of the non-administration candidates—including the Otso Diretso—would be successful in their quest for seats in the upper chamber of Congress. That is how things turned out in the 2019 election.
How does this happen? What is the acceptable explanation for recurrent convergence of the polling institutions’ pre-election voter-preference surveys and the official election results?
Believers in the usefulness, capability and security of opinion surveys can be expected to say—nay, insist—that the accuracy rate of the polling institutions’ pre-election voter-preference surveys are entirely due to the expertise with which respondent samples are prepared and the care with which the opinion-gathering is undertaken. “The polling institutions do their job with utmost proficiency and care, so why shouldn’t the election results coincide with our pre-election findings?,” they in effect say.
As already stated, the polling institutions undoubtedly are highly skilled and very proficient in the application of the techniques of opinion sampling. But when one considers that the 1,400 survey respondents are meant to represent the views of 61 million registered voters, the limitations quickly become recognizable. The Magic 12 winners among the 2019 senatorial candidates were accorded the highest number of votes by 1,400 individuals in a selection procedure involving 63 candidates; that was the implication of that exercise, nothing more, nothing less. The procedure did intend to imply that the non-Magic 12 candidates stood no chance whatsoever of being elected.
The more plausible explanation for the recurrent convergence of SWS-Pulse Asia pre-election voter-preference findings and the Comelec-announced results is the conditioning of voters’ minds that the voter-preference surveys produce. Voters who see the same names appearing in successive SWS and Pulse Asia surveys eventually come to believe that the candidates occupying the top 12 slots are the most likely winners and decide that they might as well go along with the choices of the Magic 12-favoring respondents. Their minds having been conditioned, they were ready to shade the ballot squares next to the Magic 12 names. Mind-conditioning, particularly in electoral matters, has little or no effect on Filipinos belonging to the A and B income groups, who by definition are better informed and more discernment-inclined, but is very effective with Filipinos belonging to the C, D and E income groups.
In a democratic environment there can be no question about the right of opinion-survey institutions to ply their trade or the right of any Filipino to engage the services of an opinion-survey institution to gauge the sentiment of the public, or a segment of it, on a specific matter or issue. Those rights are guaranteed by the Constitution of a democratic country. But rights, even constitutionally guaranteed ones, do not operate in a vacuum. They should be applied with due regard to the attendant circumstances.
The fragile and evolutionary state of Philippine democracy begs an essential question. Given the mind-conditioning effect, do pre-election surveys of voter sentiment serve the cause of Philippine politics? Does Philippine democracy absolutely need the conduct of voter preference polling just before an election? Or, stated differently, can Philippine democracy dispense with such polling without incurring irreparable damage?
This is an issue that should be addressed by all Filipinos—especially the legal community, politicians and the media—interested in making the electoral process a true handmaiden of democracy. Otherwise, this country will be stuck with the situation where mind-conditioned voters cast ballots for a dishonest ex-presidential daughter, a know-little action star and a once-indicted former legislator on account of their names being in the polling institutions’ Magic 12 list.