Vote Buying In The Philippines Essay

Every election in the Philippines, vote-buying always comes up as a major concern, a chronic plague that perennially shakes our faith in the integrity of the electoral process and democracy itself. But as we lament—or contemplate—this predicament, it is insightful to consider that we are not alone in our suffering. In this essay I survey some vote-buying practices around the world and draw some insights that may be useful for our national experience.

Vote-buying is actually as old as democracy itself. Even in ancient Greece—the traditional birthplace of democracy—vote-buying was already practiced, and the same can be said of the Roman republic. (Interestingly, the Latin term for vote-buying, ambitus, has the same etymology as “ambition.”) Today it is a well-documented fact that the Mafia continues to undermine elections in Italy through vote-buying.

In the United Kingdom, vote-buying became rampant in the middle part of the 19th century, following the enactment of universal suffrage in 1832. Yale scholar Susan Stokes writes that in 1835, “14 pounds were paid per vote in a hotly-contested election” in one district. She adds that vote-buying was later mediated by electoral agents, who bribed voters in behalf of their politician-clients.

In the United States, too, vote-buying was common practice until the early 20th century. In 1887, one-fifth of New York voters received money for their votes; and in 1912, one-fourth of the voters of Adams County, Ohio, were bribed. As in the United Kingdom, vote-buying “machines” made a living out of elections, serving as the middlemen between candidates and voters.

Closer to home, vote-buying has also been reported in almost all of our Southeast Asian neighbors. In the 2012 elections in Thailand, one election observer reported that “the current rate in Chonburi starts at 300 baht (around $10) and goes up to as much as 3,000 baht ($100).” In Indonesia, vote-buying is known as politik uang (literally “money politics”) and a 2014 survey showed that four out of 10 Indonesians actually believe that it is acceptable for politicians to hand out cash and commodities like rice, oil and sugar as part of campaigning.

This brings us to the point that vote-buying does not involve money alone. In Taiwan, the custom of visitors giving something to their hosts collides (or coincides) with politicians’ campaigns, but in this context, gifts—not money—are given. In other cases, cash is given, but not to pay for votes, but for services such as acting as “canvassers” for parties, winning people’s loyalties (and votes) in what scholars call “indirect vote buying.”

Others have taken this idea further by asking whether making campaign promises to certain groups—i.e., a pledge to informal settlers that they will not be evicted—also constitutes a bribe. Does it? In some countries, election laws stipulate that bribes can come in the form of gifts or promises. But where to draw the line between electoral bribery and legitimate campaigning remains a challenge for many countries, including our own.

* * *

Having established the global prevalence of vote-buying, the point of this exercise is not to find comfort in having company in our misery. There are also many examples of democracies that have overcome vote-buying, and we can learn from their experiences.

One important lesson is that ballot secrecy plays a huge role in reducing votes. In the United States, law scholar Richard Hasen attributes the significant decline in vote-buying to the secrecy of the ballot— which only became customary in the 1880s through the 1890s—given the difficulty among vote-buyers in determining whether they got what they paid for. The same can be said in Argentina, where a 1912 law introducing secret balloting marked a significant decline in vote-buying. But in the Philippines, while ballots are supposed to be secret, operators continue to find ways to make sure they get their money’s worth—and examining these practices is key to understanding how vote-buying persists.

Electoral reforms in general have mixed results. When Thailand promulgated a new constitution in 1997 with provisions such as controls on campaign spending, the introduction of a party-list system, and an independent body to administer elections, vote-buying simply took more subtle forms. The Thai experience resonates with our own electoral system, where well-crafted laws are undermined by poor implementation.

On the other hand, specific interventions such as voter education campaigns can have an impact. For instance, leaflets in Sao Tome and Principe, an island nation in the Gulf of Guinea, urging voters to “vote with their conscience” were demonstrated to reduce vote-buying.

Interestingly, scholars also make the observation that vote-buying generally declines with the decrease of poverty and social inequity, and the growth of the middle class. One way of explaining this is that as people get richer, the marginal utility of a bribe decreases, and votes get more expensive. Doubtless, education, too, plays a role, as well as many other interconnected factors that come with socioeconomic development.

The cynic may ask: How can we achieve this kind of socioeconomic development if it’s our corrupt political system that’s holding us back? On the other hand, the modest gains in our economy—and the decline of electoral corruption in other countries—should offer hope that vote-buying, no matter how rampant, can actually be put to an end.

The challenge is for us to make this happen sooner than later.

Gideon Lasco is a physician and medical anthropologist. Visit his website on health, culture and society at

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'Vote-buying is a problem that will stay with us until such time that people are enlightened about it and how it’s ridiculous,' says Comelec spokesperson James Jimenez

OFFENSE. Vote buying and vote selling are considered election offenses under Philippine law, however, they still happen every election year

Read Part 1: The many ways of buying votes

MANILA, Philippines – “The voters we educate them as much as we can, but you cannot legislate good behavior,” Commission on Elections (Comelec) spokesperson James Jimenez said, commenting on the upcoming election.

“Vote buying is a problem that will stay with us until such time that people are enlightened about it and how it’s ridiculous,” Jimenez added.

In fact, vote buying has consistently been among the top election violations documented by the Comelec.

Top election laws violations based on complaints filed in 2010

(Source: Comelec)

Threats, intimidation, terrorism, use of fraudulent device or other forms of coercion


Vote buying and vote selling


Transfer of officers and employees in the civil service within the election period


Intervention of public officers and employees


Problems in the contents of certificate of candidacy

Under the Omnibus Election Code, vote buying and vote selling are election offenses.

Violators may be imprisoned for 1 to 6 years, disqualified from holding public office, and barred from voting. The penalty goes for both vote buyer and seller, Jimenez explained.

Who is guilty of vote buying?

"Any person who gives, offers, or promises money or anything of value in order to induce anyone to vote for or against any candidate or withold his vote in the election."

"Some people even sell promises," said Jimenez. "[They give] away vouchers conditionally effective. Saying, if I win, this is effective for one hospital confinement; if I lose, it’s a scrap of paper."

"Some promise inclusion in the Conditional Cash Transfer (CCT) program. If the candidate loses, you will be kicked out of CCT," he continued.

Forms of vote-buying

Giving, offering, or promising the following:

Food, groceries, gadgets, livestock, or anything of value
Water and electricity services
Franchise or grant
Infrastructure projects
Political, financial, and other forms of favors

Although vote buying and selling are rampant, the Comelec admits difficulty in trailing violators.

"Before 2013, it was rather difficult to catch these people in the act. Because obviously, both parties have an interest in not being exposed," explained Jimenez.

"The vote buyer doesn’t want to be exposed; the vote seller doesn’t want to be embarrassed for being revealed as a person with no sense of civic duty. They're both complicit, so it’s very difficult."

"In the past, vote buying was considered to be one of the most difficult offenses to prosecute," Jimenez added.

Poll automation

Since the 2010 poll automation, incidences of vote buying has increased, the Comelec observed.

Before poll automation, the effect of vote buying is not very large, said Jimenez. "You buy votes of 10 people, so what? It’s not going to make a big difference in the grand scheme of things. Locally, it has an effect. But again, if you’re looking at elections as a whole, it would be very small."

The scene, however, changed in 2010. Candidates and operators could no longer affect the outcome of election results, Jimenez stressed, so they had to buy votes instead.

"Not a lot of people get this. Before automation, in an election, in order to win all you really need to do was to influence the preparation of the election reports," Jimenez said.

"The voting itself essentially turned to be immaterial because the election return would be changed anyway to reflect the outcome the candidate wants. So why would you bother convincing people to vote for you when you can influence the writing of the report?"

But with automation, candidates could no longer influence teachers and canvassers since machines do the work.

"Because they can no longer affect the preparation of election reports, politicians and operators had to focus on what they could affect. How? Through vote buying," said Jimenez.

Money ban

The Comelec says it is doing its best in monitoring vote buying.

In 2013, it tried to curb the problem by implementing an "election money ban." Under this rule, the Comelec limits cash withdrawals to P100,000 during the week approaching election day.

The Comelec resolution also prohibits "the transportation and/or carrying of cash exceeding P500,000 or its equivalent in any foreign currency" during that period. Carrying or transporting such amount "shall be presumed for the purpose of vote buying and electoral fraud in violation of the money ban."

"A lot of vote buying operations are cash transactions, which means that on election day, you do have people walking around with huge bags of cash," Jimenez told Rappler.

"In the run-up to the elections, maybe 2 to 3 days before the election, plenty of cash flood the market, which is why we instituted what we called the money ban."

The Supreme Court, however, stopped the Comelec from implementing such ban. The decision came after bankers made complaints.

"Unfortunately, that was tied up in the SC. It was never declared unconstitutional, it was declared ultimately moot because the election was already over and it still wasn't resolved. There was a temporary restraining order," Jimenez explained.

"But the money ban represented a concrete step to address the problem systemically rather than symptom-based. Because we wanted to take money out of the ecosystem so that people could not give money, simple as that," he continued.

Since the idea was shut down, Jimenez said they have shifted their focus on enforcing existing rules.

"Vote buying will always be a reality that we have to contend with," Jimenez said. "The best we can do is to adjust systemically by removing cash money from the system temporarily, with enough safeguards of course to protect legitimate concerns."

With the start of the campaign season on February 9, the Comelec advises the public to remain vigilant. Anyone can report campaign violations, including online activities and vote buying, by using #SumbongKo on social media.

"For the most part, communities are aware of vote buying operations. That's how it spreads, by word of mouth. Report it," Jimenez advised. –

Know of any election-related wrongdoings? Use the #PHVoteWatch map to report vote buying and vote selling, campaign finance anomalies, election-related violence, campaign violations, technical glitches, and other problems observed among communities.

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