Column: Paraprosdokian: Christian Monsod on the 2010 vote

Published on November 16, 2010.

Don’t look at me; I had to look up the meaning of the word too. I had stumbled on it in Christian Monsod’s “excellent lecture” on the 2010 automated elections (the phrase is Mahar Mangahas’, from his column on expert assessments last Saturday).

At first I thought it was a mistake; it seemed out of place in Monsod’s congenial English. Turns out it is an exact term in rhetoric, meaning a figure of speech, often
used for comic effect, in which the latter half of the line redefines the
meaning of the first. A classic example would be Henny Youngman’s famous joke,
which begins as though offering his wife as an example of something: “Take my
wife … please!” (Badaboom.) The end recasts the meaning of what comes before.

Monsod sums up his view on the Automated Election System used in 2010 in similar fashion: “I am reminded of that paraprosdokian: ‘I would like to die peacefully in my sleep like my father, not screaming and yelling like the passengers in his car.’ Our electoral system is that vehicle and the driver is the Comelec. And I am glad that the IT community is screaming and yelling now rather than later.”

The point is unmistakable, the image apt: the Comelec under Jose Melo may have fallen asleep at the wheel. The public was generally satisfied with the 2010 elections, but as Monsod himself also notes, the Comelec under Benjamin Abalos received high trust ratings immediately after the 2004 vote too; it was only a year later, after public knowledge of election fraud had become widely shared, that the “meaning” of the Abalos Comelec was recast. Could a paraprosdokian lie in wait for Melo and his commissioners? Take the Comelec … please.

Mangahas’ column last Saturday gave a most useful summary of Monsod’s insights; instead of trying my hand at another summing-up, allow me instead to quote Monsod at length. The lecture was 14 pages long; I can only quote a handful of passages.

Even before the pre-election Inquirer Briefing at which I heard him speak, I already found Monsod’s position on the question of automation tonic: mentally honest, intellectually rigorous and relentlessly pragmatic. (Characteristically, he
began his lecture with an accounting of his views before the elections, and ended it with specific suggestions.)

What follows is a necessarily incomplete survey.

In his paper, Monsod rounded up other expert assessments on the May 10 vote and, in their great diversity, managed to find common ground. “In fact, there are many areas of agreement. There was general acceptance of the results, especially for the national elections. There was agreement that the elections were attended both by perennial problems and by problems associated with automation and there was agreement that there was a need for a thorough review of the system and for
corrective measures if the AES is going to be used again. Finally, there was agreement that the PCOS machines should not be purchased. Thus, if the Comelec
decides to purchase the machines, it might be a good idea to insist that all
those involved in the transaction be subjected to a lie detector test and asked
the question: How much is the commission on this deal?”

He itemized the reasons why the assurance repeatedly given by Smartmatic, the Comelec’s election partner, that election fraud would be detected because of the system’s auditability, must be judged seriously defective. One reason included a criticism of PPCRV’s Tita de Villa (couched, characteristically, in self-deprecatory mode). “But the main argument of the Comelec against the parallel manual count was the random manual audit. And that, I am sorry to say, was a failure. In the first place, the chair of the TWG-RMA is a statistical illiterate like me and should have
realized her limitations.”

He was clear about the standards he wanted to use. “Twenty-four years after democracy was restored in our country, we should be harder on ourselves in determining if our elections are more mature and democratic, with democratic elections defined as ‘an equal opportunity for every qualified voter to cast a ballot and have that ballot counted.”’

He gave very specific recommendations about what to do next, including the following: “The second reform is to stop appointing retired justices to the Comelec. This is not directed at any individual but at the reality that the work of the Commission is too demanding for people who are used to contemplating the law from the isolation of their offices, who are virtually clueless by training and
disposition on the technical and non-legal aspects of elections and are too old
in their ways to actively manage the process, to go out to understand the
problems in the field and to pro-actively campaign for reforms. The Comelec is
a place for young, visionary, energetic and honest people who can rise to the
challenge of the changing paradigm of elections and the tasks of the Comelec,
and who can interact better with the generation who constitute the great
majority of the voters.”

And at the end (after discussing in detail “governance” issues like local warlords), he placed the very issue of automation on the line. Two of the three questions he proposed we use to “reexamine the agenda on election reform” were a direct assault on the easy assumption that automation is a necessary step forward in political maturity: “Will solving these other problems make wholesale fraud less of a problem to the extent that we can use less expensive systems with less vulnerabilities in its operation that would still ensure more accuracy while
giving the voters the ease of voting and faster results that they obviously prefer?
What will the system look like? This obviously calls for a comprehensive
cost-benefit analysis of automation.”

It is an analysis the Comelec and the Congress do not seem ready to begin.

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