CAGAYAN DE ORO CITY — Army soldiers swooped into the town of Maguing in Lanao del Sur and arrested 30 suspected flying registrants today, the last day of the two-week registration of voters in the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao.
The crackdown came as the Commission on Elections reported they received 407,367 voters' applications in Marawi City and 23 towns in Lanao del Sur on Wednesday morning.
Comelec Commissioner Armando Velasco said he sent Army soldiers to Maguing town after they received reports that the voters' applications have already exceeded the old list of voters.
He said as early as 10:30 a.m. on the last day of registration, they already had 16,872 applications in Maguing town, whereas the old voters' list only had 16,425 registered voters. "
At 10:30 in the morning, the turnout in Maguing was already 102 percent. We still have five hours until the registration closes at 5 p.m.," Velasco said earlier in the day.
The Army's 103rd Infantry Brigade quickly mustered enough forces and went to Maguing town to check on the flying registrants.
Col. Daniel Lucero, 103IB commander, said they found the suspected flying registrants loitering near the registration centers in Maguing town.
He said many of those arrested came from the neighboring provinces of Lanao del Norte and Misamis Oriental, and Iligan City.
"Many of them told us they were victims of Typhoon Sendong. They were promised to be paid P2,000 each if they come to register in Maguing," Lucero said.
He said the suspects were released after they were brought to Marawi City and investigated for their real identities. An electoral watchdog, the Citizens Care in Lanao del Sur, said local politicians are offering flying registrants from P500 to P1,000.
The town of Maguing is always a potential hot spot for vote buying during past elections. In the 2004 elections, the late Hadji Abdullah "Lacs" Dalidig, who headed the local chapter of the Natioanal Movement for Free Elections (Manfred) then, reported that local politicians paid as much as P10,000 for every voter in the municipality.
The Commission on Elections has purged the entire voters' list in Lanao del Sur and the four provinces that comprise the ARMM in an effort to rid the region of the image as "cheating capital of the Philippines."
Velasco said they are satisfied of the 77 percent turnout of potential voters in Lanao del Sur despite allegations that many of the registrants were minors and politicians brought in registrants from nearby provinces.
Velasco said 407,367 applied to become voters in Lanao del Sur. He said the old voters' list in Lanao del Sur contained 522,000 names.
"If turnout hits 100 percent, then we can say we failed in the exercise. We think taking off 15-20 percent from the old voters' list is okay," he pointed out.
He said the number of applications will still go down because many election officers who manned the biometric machines noted "underage" to the application of registrants who "appear to be minors."
"The list will still be whittled down as soon as we see how many applications are marked 'underage'," Velasco said.
He said he gave instructions to election officers to mark the applications during their training in Cagayan de Oro and Iligan cities days before the registration started last July 9.
"We do not like trouble erupting at the registration centers. So the instructions were to mark discretely the application papers," he said.
Velasco said political parties, politicians and concerned citizens still have until August 17 to oppose any application of the voters.
He said these complaints will be decided in the Comelec office in Manila.
Still, Sinab Ibrahim, head of the Citizens Care Lanao del Sur Management Center, said the Comelec could have done better in checking the irregularities during the registration.
Ibrahim said the Comelec dropped its mandatory requirement for a prospective applicant to show two government-issued identification cards when he or she applies to be a voter in Lanao del Sur and other provinces in the ARMM.
Section 10 of the Comelec Resolution 9443 states that applicants should present either an NBI or police clearance, postal ID, student or school ID, passport, SSS or GSIS ID, license from the Professional Regulatory Commission, Integrated Bar of the Philippines ID, or a driver's license.
Cedulas, or community tax certificates, are not honored by the Comelec because these have no pictures. "Because the Comelec made a last-minute decision to drop the presentation of IDs, it opened the floodgates for flying registrants," Ibrahim said.
She said they also noticed that many election officers — who mostly came from neighboring provinces of Lanao del Norte, Misamis Oriental, Misamis Occidental and Bukidnon — relied "too much " on barangay officials to help them identify the registrants.
She said this is very controversial since many barangay officials in Lanao del Sur are partisans to certain politicians.
(ARMM WATCH is a project of VERA Files in partnership with MindaNews, The Asia Foundation and Australian Agency for International Development. VERA Files is put out by veteran journalists taking a deeper look at current issues. VERA is Latin for "true.")