Column: Comelec lessons in crowd control

Published on November 10, 2015.

LIKE MANY other Filipinos, I went to register for my biometrics on the last possible day. It wasn’t the original plan, of course, and in fact I did go to the first special registration conducted in our barangay hall and also to another one held in a nearby mall. Both times, however, I was late; by the time I got in, the cut-off for the line had already been reached. No excuses—I should have gone months earlier, when it would have taken a few minutes, perhaps less than 10, to complete the entire exercise.

Instead, I ended up going to Quezon City Hall at dawn on Saturday, Oct. 31, where I waited in line for nine and a half hours. Like I said, no excuses.

But standing in line confirmed key lessons I learned from queueing for other purposes, in other places. I do not mean to place the hard-working staff of the Commission on Elections, or the staff of Quezon City Hall, under a harsh light; indeed, some of the lessons were confirmed by what they did, not by what they failed to do. I do want to offer constructive criticism, for the next time a government agency or a private institution needs to manage, and engage, a queuing crowd.

As a long-time voter in the fourth district, I was among the lucky ones; our registration was conducted in the large, wind-cooled lobby of city hall, and we cooled our heels in the wide, covered walk that leads to the lobby. When it rained—and of course it did—we were safe and dry. Around 30 minutes before noon, we were able to reach the row of chairs reserved for the next 200 or so to be processed. The voters of the third district may have been luckier; a notice outside City Hall identified their location as Eastwood Mall.

Late registrants in the other four districts of Quezon City, however, had rotten luck. Their registration was held in offices on the periphery of the City Hall complex, and their lines formed out in the street. I can only wonder about their situation when the rains fell, around noon.

From about 5:45 a.m. until around 10 a.m., however, we in the fourth district line were not feeling particularly lucky ourselves. The first two (male) guards monitoring our line were a little laissez-faire, and at one point, around 8 a.m., a vendor selling ballpoint pens (a common sight in government offices) started telling us to form two lines. Since a guard was right behind him as he made his way down, we followed the instruction; the two-line formation allowed those of us who were still out in the street to make it inside the covered walk only two hours after joining the queue. Not bad, we thought. Not long after, however, another guard came down the corridor and told us to form only one line. There was a great commotion, with a lot of explosive swearing, but eventually we straggled back and formed one fat line.

Then a tall (female) guard arrived, and took over. She surveyed the scene, and decided to use the width of the corridor to good effect. She brought more people into the “inner” corridor, shaping the line so it would turn at one end and snake its way back to the other end, and then turn again. By doing that, she was able to muster maybe 700 or so people into that part of the waiting area where we could see what was ahead of us. (A board separated the inner corridor from the outer one.)

Many of us in the line knew that the Comelec could only accommodate a certain, not an unlimited, number of registrants. Numbers were the subject of rumors: The previous night, someone said, the registration ended at 9 p.m. Another one swore it was closer to midnight. Someone else said the machines could accommodate an average of 600 users per day. Many of us in the line took careful note of two more lines forming in another part of the corridor; the anxious were told that the new lines were for senior citizens (no question there) and for government employees (about which many in line voiced strong opinions—teachers and soldiers and policemen, yes, but should, say, an employee of the Bureau of Plant Industry enjoy the privilege?).

Finally, around 10 a.m., a Comelec official with policemen in tow distributed queuing cards; many of us knew that a number lower than 500 was good—we would certainly be accommodated. It took the Comelec another hour or so to come back and award the final 500 numbers.

To process 1,000 registrants in one day was an ambitious target—and yet because the announcement was done without much forethought, the notice was received with angrier, dirtier shouting and swearing.

The lessons:

1. Manage expectations. If an official of either the commission or the city had made frequent announcements about the average number of registrations that could be processed, and updated those in line regularly about the processing, the unexpectedly ambitious target of 1,000 would have been welcomed. Instead, because of the failure to communicate to those waiting in line, the efficiency of the Comelec’s hard-working staff was subjected to insult.

2. Police the lines. There were still a number of people who tried to jump the queue, especially in the early going. One guard, no matter how conscientious or formidable, cannot hope to police the lines herself. Of course those in line helped (after a few hours waiting in line together, we knew who was ahead of us and who were behind), but it added to the anxiety.

3. Remove the anxiety. The most important thing was the distribution of the queueing cards; when we got ours, we no longer minded the late attempts to jump the queue—because the jumpers didn’t have the cards and would have not been allowed to register anyway. This should have been done earlier: The ticket to orderly queueing is the ticket.

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