The need for an informed democratic impulse in response to election surveys

By Atty. Anfred P. Panes

Laypersons may have the tendency to question the partiality and accuracy of election polls staging its visibility in the months drawing near the 2022 elections.  However, it is not a novel experience that election survey mechanism is assailed but its existence is attributed to the esoteric legal disquisitions which finally settled in favor of upholding the conduct and publication of election polls. The opinion integrated herein is a cautionary one which is owed to the understanding that public opinion has become a social fact in terms of electoral dynamics and the mobilization of electorates.

Two decades ago, in the State jurisprudence Social Weather Station, Inc. & Kamahalan Publishing Corporation doing business as Manila Standard v. Commission on Elections, G.R. No. 147571, the Supreme Court pronounced that the prohibition of publication of election poll results on the premise that it might undermine the integrity of the election may actually suppress a whole class of constitutionally-protected freedom of expression while allowing the expression of opinion as regards the similar subject matter expressed by newspaper columnists, commentators in radio and TVs, armchair theorists, and other opinion-makers.

While it makes practical sense that the prohibition on publication of election survey aims at the prevention of last-minute pressure on the electorate, the creation of bandwagon effect to which those undecided voters may be induced to follow the majoritarian choice, the “junking” of relatively weaker candidates, and resort to the form of election cheating called “dagdag-bawas”, it cannot be attained as such if it cuts across the fundamental right of expression most especially that the said act is not patently unlawful.   Thus, election surveys and the publication of poll results are allowed despite its concomitant influence on public opinion for a limited period of time, whether or not we subjectively treat it as a good thing, in the premise that the freedom of expression should not be subjected to prior restraint or censorship which carries a heavy burden of unconstitutionality.

The oft-cited freedom of expression finds refuge in Section 4 of the Bill of Rights of the Philippine Constitution. It enshrines the principle that no law shall be passed abridging the freedom of speech, of expression, or of the press, or the right of the people peaceably to assemble and petition the government for redress of grievances.  Be that as it may, I submit as of yet that election polls are not really representative of the choice of the general population.  Various researches which include Philippine scholarship utilizing Western standards which aptly finds application in the local context would suggest that there are considerable margins of errors in the conduct and interpretation of election polls especially in the methodology of random sampling.  Public opinion is very volatile as it constantly changes every time socio-political and economic issues are brought to light.

Acknowledging that election surveys on national positions do not represent the electorate’s choice as it differs in the geopolitical circumstances, it is always a rule of thumb that what appears in the non-all-encompassing results are not conclusive.  The general public must exercise diligence in scrutinizing the draw of public opinion in those polls as well as the auspices thereof.

There are still millions of voters who are undecided and the forementioned bandwagon effect might have a real impact on them. Vis-à-vis the published election survey results, the other side of the coin still depends on the critical approach of a voter based on his or her informed perception.  Election poll results which find refuge on freedom of expression should be responded with greater height of analysis and critical thinking.

The study of Eva-Lotta E. Hedman on The Politics of “Public Opinion” in the Philippines published in the Journal of Current Southeast Asian Affairs advances the argument that the emergence of public opinion significantly influences the process of election campaigning itself which is manifested in the floating and junking of candidates, the turn-coatism of politicians, and the formation of coalitions.  The notable developments in view of the 2022 elections is the anticipated yet interesting theater of substitution of candidacy and party-switching.

Thus, it is important to know our leaders, their platforms, and track records.  We need to break the tradition of converging with the majoritarian choice, albeit impressionistic, because the majority’s choice is not always the best. A quantitative win does not equate to a quality leadership most especially in our context that democracy is descriptive of “clientelism”, “bossism”, and factionalism.

We hope that we are not just writing on water when we look forward to 2022 elections reasonably factoring practicable policies, concrete programs, and promising track records of competence, integrity, and moral leadership.  We can only hope for a more informed public opinion. In times when there is a ubiquity of poll surveys and the propensity to band with the majority’s choice, a properly informed democratic impulse is all that we need to keep us in an enlightened dimension come 2022 national and local elections.

The author is the founding partner of A.Panes Law and a Professorial Lecturer of the USA College of Law.