ZAMBOANGA CITY (MindaNews/10 July) – The head of the country’s election body has witnessed firsthand a perennial problem bugging elections in the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (ARMM).
On Monday, Commission on Elections (Comelec) Chair Sixto Brillantes Jr. did not fail to notice that in the island municipality of Simunul in Tawi-Tawi people look so young, in fact very young based on the physical appearance of some of the registrants for the 2013 elections queuing at the registration centers.
Brillantes, who flew to the southernmost province on the opening day of the 10-day general relisting of voters in ARMM, saw for himself what he described as “cultural error” – people being controlled by crook politicians.
“When I visited two registration centers in Simunul, I saw people that are not really 18 years old lining at the registration centers. I was even joking to them that it seems people here really look young,” he said.
He said some were saying they are 22 years old but the physical feature is that of a 14-year-old leading him to conclude that reports on minors registering as voters are reliable.
Brillantes said the registration will enable the Comelec to know how widespread the malpractice is in the ARMM.
“Our instruction to our election officers is not to argue but let them register and accept them because we have a scheme, which I will not tell you in the meantime, where we can eliminate [those questionable individuals],” he said.
Similar observations have been noted in other in parts of the ARMM, which is composed of the provinces of Lanao del Sur, Maguindanao, and the island provinces of Basilan and Sulu.
Henrietta de Villa, chairperson of the Parish Pastoral Council for Responsible Voting, in a statement said they are worried since the biometrics system that the Comelec is using in the registration could not determine the exact age of the registrants.
“The difficulty in culling, however, remains in terms of weeding out underage voters who seem to be flooding the registration centers in Maguindanao,” she said.
“In Maguindanao, many births are not recorded or reported and biometrics is in no position to determine whether a registrant is underage or not. This is further complicated by the fact that if a registrant is questioned regarding his age, all it takes is for his or her parent to say so in order for the registrant’s application to be accepted,” she said.
Brillantes said the registration has many levels to filter all the data in the registration centers, adding that data will be validated at the Comelec central office in Manila to eliminate registrants whose profiles are doubtful.
“It will be passed to the Election Registration Board,” he pointed out, but declined to reveal on the type of system they are using to check the data particularly those of underage registrants.
“We are not going to announce this scheme yet because we still have eight days of registration. We don’t want these people to know what we are doing,” he said when pressed further.
“Aside from that our people on the ground have eyes. They see who are underage and not,” Brillantes said, referring to the Comelec’s order that elections officials are instructed to mark the registration form if a registrant is suspected to be underage.
He, however, admitted that the filtering system is not that “fool-proof.”
He said the Comelec is eyeing to have the final listing of ARMM voters before the year ends.
Comelec Commissioner Elias R. Yusoph also warned voter registrants in ARMM that they could be imprisoned for a maximum of six years and disqualified from holding public office if they are found to have registered more than once based on the Omnibus Election Code.
The ongoing 10-day voters’ registration, which started on Monday and ends on July 18, is aimed at purging double registrants, said to be the cause of widespread fraud during elections.
ARMM figured in an alleged massive poll cheating during the 2007-midterm elections in favor of the candidates of the previous administration.
The Comelec has earlier said they discovered some 300,000 multiple registrants in the area, mostly listed in far-flung precincts in towns where political rivalry is intense.
Meanwhile, the Comelec said they were not surprised why the turnout of the voter registrants in the autonomous region was “very low” on the first day.
Brillantes said the low number of registrants only validates the assumption of the poll body that the previous number of voters was bloated and inaccurate.
“Report coming from our project director is that for the first day the partial figure is about 75,000 registrants. Now, if we project this on 10 days, these will go to about 750, 000 registrants, which is very low because our initial registered voters that we have annulled in ARMM is 1.7-million,” he told reporters here.
He said from 750,000 registrants they expect the figures to increase by 100,000 to 220,000 “when the full report comes in.”
“This will result to 1.2-million registrants. That’s our extrapolation and projection, which is okay because we really expect that 1.7-million registered voters in ARMM that was annulled was really a bloated number,” he pointed out.
“Now there is a registration of real voters. We are now trying to cure the cultural errors of the people of the ARMM of being controlled by some politicians and barangay officials,” he said.
Brillantes warned village officials and police officers not to meddle inside the registration centers as this is not their job.
“They don’t have business inside the registration centers,” he said, adding that the Comelec will file charges against village officials and police personnel who would interfere in the registration process.
“I personally saw in Tawi-Tawi when I went to one island-municipality there, the barangay official seems to be very active in the recruitment of voters. This is what we would not want to happen. In fact, I gave a warning in Tawi-tawi that a barangay official should not participate and should not be active in the registration of voters,” he said.
As of Tuesday, Brillantes said no major incident occurred during the second day of the registration across the region. (MindaNews)