Lessons from the ARMM voter registration

The Commission on Elections just concluded a general voter registration in the Autonomous Region of Muslim Mindanao (ARMM) from July 9-18, 2012. As of July 19, the day after the registration ended, the COMELEC was still estimating a 1.2 million number of registrants. However, a later statement reported a 15.9 million figure, just a difference of 800,000 from its previous list of 1.7 million.

The discrepancy is too large not to be noticed. A 3.9 million upsurge (around 25%) in the last one or two days of the registration cannot just be explained away, even with the legendary, last-minute queuing practice of Filipinos.

The news about the ARMM general voter registration contained two major attempts to pad the voter’s list.

The first was the allowing of registration of under-aged people, even children. The COMELEC explained that this was done to speed up the process and avoid acrimonious quarrels at the registration desk. It said that the Board of Election Inspectors (BEIs) was instructed to mark these registrants for later removal. One estimate had 50,000 of these under-aged registrants getting into the voters’ list in one province halfway into the registration.

The second was the preponderant practice of the “hakot” system, the transporting of illegal registrants from outside the barangay (village), town, province, or even ARMM to register in an electoral jurisdiction. These people came from as far away as Metro Manila and Luzon and the Visayas, evidently an organized campaign by ARMM politicians to have as many of their people in the list.

There is a third possibility. Vulnerable or partisan election officers may be coerced or bribed to include previously registered names—particularly those with biometric measurements already—in the roll of registered voters. These additional names (usually ghost voters) are kept by the politicians themselves.

Why go into extraordinary lengths to get into the ARMM voters’ list? The reason, of course, is that the inclusion of more names in the list produces more “ghost” voters whose names can be used for voting and counting in the May 2013 elections. These “ghost” voters can even be grouped into “ghost” precincts for easier manipulation.

The automated election system (AES)—first implemented in the 2010 elections—has largely made it difficult for election cheaters to do their thing. This is the reason why attention is shifting to the voters’ list. As long as a fake voter’s name is in the list, somebody can vote for him.

It is in this light that the abnormally long gestation of the biometrics system in the identification of voters—started in 2001 and producing only an 83% implementation—has led to suspicions of deliberate non-implementation. It requires a 100% coverage, on a nationwide scale, for it to be effective in discovering double or multiple registrants.

New strategies need to be put in place to counter new and old cheating tactics in an automated election environment. The proposal to include fingerprint-verification function to the voter-verification process on Election Day in ARMM—based on the recent 100% biometrics-based general registration—is a step in the right direction. National general registration and biometrics-based voter-verification on Election Day may be too late for the 2013 elections but these should be a must for the 2016 elections.

Ramon Casiple is a well-respected political analyst. He is also the Executive Director of the Institute for Political and Electoral Reform (IPER).


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