A time for watchers
It was upsetting news when the National Citizens’ Movement for Free Elections (Namfrel) announced that it was withdrawing this year as a Commission on Elections-accredited poll watchdog. Though the citizen organization vowed to still conduct its election activities (albeit without Comelec accreditation), its parting with the Comelec this year signals a new urgency for nonpartisan poll watchers and citizens to be vigilant and unafraid.
Namfrel rejected its accreditation after the Comelec did not grant its request to access data for the proposed Open Election Data project. This new Namfrel initiative is intended to make the electoral process more transparent. The project would feature a website where the public can find “almost real-time” updates on poll transmissions and tabulation. It would be a venue for Namfrel to independently monitor election results and highlight irregularities.
To maintain this website, Namfrel would need access to information such as election voters lists, candidates lists and precinct statistics—not just election returns. But since the Comelec refused to grant access to this additional data, Namfrel now has to take on the new challenge of finding other sources and making sure its data are pristine. Without an authoritative digital trail, the rest of us are left with the same blinders that hindered our scrutiny of previous elections.
In addition, Namfrel regrettably pulled out from the random manual audit (RMA) of precincts, asserting that its requested election data would be important to support the Namfrel audit. This last-minute withdrawal has sent the Comelec scrambling to find a new partner to accredit for the RMA. The May 13 elections loom with no citizens’ arm in sight to conduct the manual audit with the Comelec.
These are lost opportunities for transparency and credibility. Now, independent poll watch groups, volunteers and ordinary citizens are all the more essential in safeguarding the sanctity of the elections.
There are two other citizens’ arms accredited by the Comelec—the Parish Pastoral Council for Responsible Voting (PPCRV) and the Bangsamoro Free Election Movement (BFEM). Their activities include watching the polling precincts, assisting voters and supporting the Comelec’s voter education drives.
Other organizations, though not Comelec-accredited, are doing a great job at these as well. For instance, during the 2016 presidential election, the volunteer group Legal Network for Truthful Elections monitored malfunctioning vote-counting machines and unlawful entries of barangay officials in polling precincts, among others. Throughout the country, local associations, religious groups and academic organizations did the same.
Of course, we can’t leave out the ballot-guarding figures who voluntarily turn up at precincts every election: the teachers. The Department of Education has recently called for its teacher-volunteers to remain nonpartisan—a vital reminder as political clamor reaches a fever pitch and the voting process still leaves much room for doubt.
As the Comelec throws away one credibility point after another, these groups and individuals now carry a greater responsibility for clean and accurate elections. And we, citizens, must work with them through every avenue we have.
Volunteering is a concrete way to do this. As of this writing, groups like Namfrel, PPCRV and BFEM are still welcoming volunteers (as young as 15 years old for Namfrel) to participate in their voter education and poll-watching activities. Other local organizations are almost certainly open to additional hands as well.
For those of us who cannot volunteer, our individual observations are still indispensable. Watchdog groups have hotlines, websites and social media pages through which we can report violations and irregularities, or raise questions about the voting process. When reporting has become this easy, we no longer have an excuse to stay silent about what we see in the elections. We must consider it our duty to participate in guarding the process, even through methods as simple as texting or private messaging.
The midterm elections will trudge on—ill-equipped, full of weaknesses and difficult to have faith in. This crucial process has to be protected, and this time, a significant part of that task falls on us, the watchers.
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