Prioritize voter education

TO PROVIDE “the biggest and most comprehensive coverage” of the presidential elections next year, “Eleksyon 2010” was launched last week at the new GMA 7 studios by the “best of the best” Philippine media entities, telecommunications giants, academic institutions, poll watchdogs and civic groups.

Independent consultant. Led by GMA Network, Philippine Daily Inquirer, Philippine Long Distance Telephone Co. and Smart Telecommunications, the 20 “equal partners and co-workers” banded together – in the presence and with the encouragement of the Commission on Elections – to ensure free and credible elections on May 10, 2010.

I was invited to be an independent consultant; independent in the sense that I would not be an official, partner or “professional adviser” of the group. Thus, I sat through the two-hour ceremony as part of the audience, not as a direct participant. I intently listened to the principals so I could suggest ways to help achieve their noble goal and render objective advice on contentious matters.

To be fair, may I point out that a parallel “Boto Mo, I-Patrol Mo: Ako ang Simula” was unveiled last May 11 by a group led by ABS-CBN Network, Philippine Star, Globe Telecom and Bayan Telecommunications, with the same aim of assuring credible elections in 2010. I say this because, to quote Howie Severino of GMANews.TV who justified the “co-equal” inclusion of its rival, INQUIRER.net, “The elections are bigger than media competition. The public interest is much more important than private interest.”

Unique polls. Many of the “Eleksyon 2010” partners focused on safeguarding the polls on Election Day itself. For instance, AMA Educational System chairman Amable Aguiluz V spoke of using his school’s vast network of campuses to reprise its quick count role in past elections. Undoubtedly, this is very important.

However, I believe that 2010 should be treated differently from past elections because, first, it will hopefully be automated; and second, it is seriously threatened by schemes and plots to prevent it from being a genuine agent of democratic change.

Some of these threats are uncanny like the recent spat between Total Information Management and Smartmatic that nearly scuttled automation; or the misalignment in the printing of the ovals in the automated ballots that resulted in near chaos in the 1998 polls in Sulu (See my column on June 7, 2009).

Also worth looking into are persistent complaints that the automation hardware and software are vulnerable to hacking, insider sabotage, computer glitches and wholesale fraud. Manuel Alcuaz Jr. discussed some of these in his Inquirer article on July 6.

Automation education. Thus, I respectfully suggest that the first task is to study closely the Comelec automated system, identify threats and problems, help find solutions and then educate ourselves and the voters on how automation works, how it can be used properly, and how it can be safeguarded from misuse and abuse. In short, the highest priority at this point should be educating our people, especially the teachers who will constitute the Board of Election Inspectors.

Fortunately, the “Eleksyon 2010” partners include the “best of the best” educational institutions like Ateneo, La Salle, San Beda, University of the Philippines and University of Santo Tomas. The Parish Pastoral Council for Responsible Voting, a veteran poll watcher since 1992, is the partner that can seamlessly coordinate voter education program.

The essentials of automated voting must reach everyone. What better way to do this than to involve the major educational groups like the Philippine Association of Colleges and Universities and the Catholic Educational Association of the Philippines. And because public school teachers are indispensable to the cause, the Department of Education and various teacher organizations must be tapped too.

The combination of media, parishes (via PPCRV) and schools is the most potent force to achieve free and honest elections. These three institutions are publicly trusted receptacles and purveyors of truth.

No to term extensions. “Eleksyon 2010” has been universally acclaimed because our people – as all surveys show – overwhelmingly want a constitutional, peaceful and democratic transition of power in 2010. They are fiercely averse to term extensions under any guise, whether via Charter change, emergency rule, martial law, failure of election or non-proclamation of winners. The most comprehensive coverage of our people’s cry for an orderly transfer of power in 2010 necessarily includes a priori, a rejection of all these schemes and plots to frustrate the election.

It also involves thorough monitoring of the Comelec preparations for manual elections. Should automation, for any reason whatsoever (including a possible nullification thereof by the Supreme Court due to the petition filed last July 9 by Harry Roque, et al.), become unviable, an immediate shift to manual is a must. Note that P4 billion remains from the original P11 billion appropriated for automation. It should be used to prepare for an instant switch to manual balloting.

Voter education is the top priority for now. Let us learn more about automation, while monitoring manual preparations. Yes to elections, whether automated or manual. No to Cha-cha at this time. No to martial law. No to emergency rule.

A free and credible election in 2010 is non-negotiable. Woe to the schemers who want to stop it. They will not escape our people’s wrath.

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