Votes for sale, anyone?

Buena Bernal, Chay F. Hofileña

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This year’s elections show how the players are improving on established forms of vote buying and vote selling

MANILA, Philippines – Local races are often marred with allegations of vote buying and vote selling, making you wonder whether the strategy is more cost-efficient compared to running a clean campaign.

Some operators say that not all sums given to voters are blatant forms of bribery. They explain that sums are distributed to “facilitate” the voting of people who do not have the means to travel to their voting precincts or who could not afford to be away from their day jobs. The money given to them by candidates is intended to make voting an easier, less painful exercise.

Admittedly, the subtle message is that the voter at the receiving end should vote for the candidate who gave the money through his ward leaders. In true Philippine fashion, elections are a lot about organization as they are about machinery.

In the past elections, as in the present, “ward leaders” are tapped to organize communities and even families, down to the barangay level. Money, health cards, and other goods are distributed down the vote chain, with ward leaders accounting for every family member-beneficiary who is, more often than not, counted on to add to a candidate’s vote tally.

Some candidates are methodical in their approach, making sure that an organized machinery delivers the votes with clear accountabilities. The organization begins at the district level where a campaign coordinator finds contacts in each district area. They in turn work with specific barangay captains who, in turn, identify key people at the purok level. Moving further down, they find leaders at the precinct level who then tap pollwatchers who are expected to work for a candidate and get paid in exchange. 

The objective is to recruit coordinators who will take on various tasks and look for others to bring into the fold, similar to a pyramid style of recruitment.

In many ways, campaign teams can argue they are not buying votes but providing employment. This is also why elections are often referred to as a cottage industry that provides short-term employment. After all, transactions are legitimate but are borderline cases of vote buying. 

Vote selling, vote buying

Through the years, amounts given out to voters have varied – depending on poverty levels in a community or the financial capability of candidates. This year’s elections show how the players are improving on established forms of vote transactions.

DOOR-TO-DOOR. A local newspaper reports on vote buying in Sarrat, Ilocos Norte. Faye Sales/Rappler

For instance, in the highly urbanized Cagayan de Oro City, groups of people organize and sell their votes through “coordinators” in each barangay who then sell them “wholesale” to a politician. Prices in the hinterlands, where many of the city’s informal sector live, start “for as low as P1,000 per head.”

(Read here about similar tactic of wholesale vote selling in Pampanga a few elections ago.)

The ward leaders or coordinators on the ground are “well taken care of” and are often loyal to a candidate’s campaign – unless they are mistreated or pirated by another. These coordinators serve as middlemen who broker the vote-buying transactions between voters and politicians.

In other cases, buyers go door-to-door, but transactions often happen the night before elections. To make sure that money is not wasted and to include beneficiaries in their database of voters, some voters are asked to fill up forms. “There is a form to be filled out, asking us about our personal details. My friend filled it out for me. They gave the name of the politician to vote for, and we got money in exchange,” one voter in Ilocos Norte said in the local dialect.

In Dumaguete City, an election volunteer confirmed that the vote-buying rate for a single candidate is pegged at P2,000. Voters are given a slightly lower P1,500 if they vote for the candidate’s opponent but deface the ballot to nullify their vote.

In Samar, one of the country’s poorest provinces, amounts given to individual voters go as high as P5,000 to P7,000.

A resident of Barangay Margot in Angeles, Pampanga, said civilians are given P200 for their votes, while NGO leaders and officials are given P500 each. In an area called “Pulo” in the province of Cavite, voters are gathered and taken to a different barangay for the distribution of P500 bills by a gubernatorial bet’s “representative.”

In Metro Manila, where urban poor areas abound and are more congested, rates also range from P300 to P500 per voter. (WATCH: Votes for sale)

VOTE BUYING. Voters line up in Bayan Luma, Imus City to receive P500 and a sample ballot enclosed in an envelope.


While vote-buying is common practice, not everyone who receives cash are voters. A resident of Guiguinto, Bulacan, in his late 40s and nephew of a local candidate said his uncle had to pay off the armed rebel group New People’s Army to ensure he would be able to campaign freely.

P50,000 lang naman hiningi (They just asked for P50,000),” he said, implying that the money spent was worth it.

Kesa manggulo sila, eh di bigyan mo na lang (Instead of having them cause disorder, just hand them money),” he added.

The NPA’s permit to campaign requirements have been a headache for many candidates caught in tight races. Needing to reach either remote areas or parts of the country where NPAs have a presence, they are forced to deal with armed groups.

No less than Maj Gen Jose Mabanta, commander of the Army’s 3rd Infantry Division, said that candidates who want to be able to access rebel-controlled areas pay between P50,000 to P5 million. The rebel group denies this.

Other forms of money distribution exist. Wads of cash are distributed to local officials such as barangay captains and councilors, to make sure that candidates for higher-level posts have local support. The barangay chairmen contact the purok leaders to do the dirty job, often distributing as low as P200 per voter.

Wizened and veteran politicians know that many barangay captains can be turncoats at the last minute or end up pocketing the money themselves. This has led some to estimate that in the end, only 20% can be relied on to actually keep their word.

Local politicians also maximize their net gain in cash during the election season by approaching and asking “support” from multiple candidates, even competing ones, in secret. In some cases, they even approach gubernatorial or congressional bets from the rival party. This is what happens when there are no genuine political parties.

What equal opportunity?

Lawyer Takahiro Kenjie Aman, national secretariat head of the Legal Network for Truthful Elections (LENTE) Philippines, said vote-buying strikes at the core of the right of suffrage.  

“It defeats the equality principle in elections, as it gives advantage to candidates who can afford to release money to win,” he explained.

Even as electoral laws contain provisions that help candidates who are disadvantaged in wealth an equal opportunity to win, elections are still very much a money game.

Aman said the best way to combat vote buying is to make the vote buyers feel that it is not worth their money. “It is more difficult to ask people not to receive the money, especially if they have a hungry stomach to feed, than to ask candidates not to shell out money when [they know] it doesn’t translate to votes,” he said.


The Commission on Elections, in a resolution dated May 7, has imposed a limit on money withdrawal and permitted the warrantless citizen arrest of vote-buyers and sellers to send a strong message to election offenders.

Late last year, Comelec Commissioner Grace Padaca proposed a stronger enforcement of the law by having vote buyers arrested.

But prosecuting offenders is becoming increasingly hard, as the culture spreads and very few are willing to speak against those in power. “No one reports anything, because everyone is afraid of the politician and is accepting of the vote buying tradition,” an Ilocos voter said.

The evidence needed to establish probable cause is also a challenge for most ordinary citizens. “To initiate a case for vote-buying, there must be a sworn complaint affidavit, a sworn affidavit of witnesses if there is any, a picture of the vote buying transaction and the money used to buy votes as real evidence,” Aman explained.

Criminal act

Vote buying is a criminal act, and it should be treated that way. It undermines the desired effect of the entire electoral process: to reflect the preferences of a constituency. The exchange unduly places a sense of obligation, a feeling of intrinsic reciprocity on the part of the voter.

Both vote buyer and seller are criminally liable, with a penalty of imprisonment from one year to 6 years, under Philippine law.

“Perhaps politicians think it’s a way of assuring people that they’re there to help, [that] they did not forget, but that’s just putting it a little too nicely. Maybe it’s a habit they can’t kick, like cigarette smoking or pot,” added the Ilocos Norte voter, disillusioned, as his initial preference for mayor who he thought ran a clean campaign, was the one who actually bought his vote. – with reports from Giano Libot, Therene Quijano, Tricia Villaluz, and Faye Sales/


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Chay F. Hofileña

Chay Hofileña is editor of Rappler's investigative and in-depth section, Newsbreak. Among Rappler’s senior founders and editors, she is also in charge of training. She obtained her graduate degree from Columbia University’s School of Journalism in New York.