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Philippines prepares for 3 elections in next two years; 10 urgent tasks for Comelec, voters

The Commission on Elections (Comelec) as well as the poll watchdogs have a full plate as the country prepares to hold three elections in the next two years. 

While everyone is gearing up for the barangay and Sangguniang Kabataan elections (BSKE) on Oct. 30, preparations are also already underway for at least two elections in 2025. The country will hold in May 2025 the midterm national elections and, simultaneously, the first regular elections of the Bangsamoro Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (BARMM).

Filipino voters will go back to manual voting for the BSKE. But for the 2025 midterms, the Comelec has begun the procurement process for new voting machines. 

The Philippines will again hold the next village and youth elections in December 2025 if a recent Supreme Court ruling is followed. Comelec is expected to file a motion for reconsideration. 

The high court has ruled as unconstitutional the law postponing BSKE from December 2022 to October this year, saying that the meaningful exercise of the right to vote requires the holding of “genuine periodic elections.” It, however, allowed this year’s elections to proceed. It set the succeeding elections on the first Monday of December 2025 and every three years thereafter.  

In September 2023, the Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism (PCIJ) sat down with election watchdogs to identify urgent tasks to improve the conduct of these elections.

They identified at least 10 urgent tasks for the Comelec, watchdogs, and voters for the next two years. 

1. Comelec’s anti-vote buying campaign should target the buyers and principals. The poll body should also guarantee the safety of witnesses willing to testify.

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The Comelec has doubled down on vote buying. The elections body launched on Sept. 8 the Kontra Bigay Program that will go after vote buyers and sellers in time for the barangay and SK elections in October.

Comelec chairman George Garcia said legal assistance desks (LAD) will be set up nationwide and manned by volunteer lawyers who will receive and investigate complaints, and document evidence. The poll body has a memorandum of agreement with the Department of Justice to receive complaints. Offenders can be arrested on site, Garcia said. 

The campaign seeks to address previous challenges leading to failures in prosecuting vote-buying offenders, usually in relation to the inadmissibility of evidence in court.

Legal Network for Truthful Elections (Lente) executive director Rona Ann “Ona” Caritos said she is hopeful because Comelec has engaged the Philippine National Police (PNP) to take the lead role in running after the offenders. 

But the Comelec and the PNP should make sure that the police are not going to abuse their powers during the elections. Caritos said the Comelec initiative should not turn into a campaign targeting the poor. 

“We want to see na hindi lang foot soldiers ang makakasuhan. We want to go after the principals,” Caritos said during the PCIJ roundtable. 

The poll watchdogs said Comelec should also address concerns about the safety and security of witnesses, who could face harassment from candidates and their supporters if they try to collect evidence or testify on vote buying. 

“The primary concern is the safety and security of the witnesses, not only of the witness himself but the family or even the extended family,” said National Citizens’ Movement for Free Elections (Namfrel) national chairperson Angel “Lito” Averia Jr.

The same concern was expressed by Caritas Philippines executive director Fr. Antonio Labiao Jr. “What are the safety measures for our people who will get involved?… Baka mapasubo natin ang maraming tao na wala naman tayo security measures (We might put many people at risk if there are no security measures),” he said.  

2. Investigating abuse of state resources is just as important as investigating vote buying.

Former Comelec Commissioner Luie Guia, co-founder of Democratic Insights Group, said it’s just as important to identify the sources of funds used in vote buying. 

“Yung buyer talaga ang [dapat parusahan] dito kasi siya ang nakikinabang. Hindi sa vote buying tinitignan kundi saan galing ang pera niya na pambili. Kaya ang abuse of state resources (ASR) is very important. That is what I want to look at rather than vote buying,” said Guia. 

Lente has studied the abuse of state resources — undue use of official powers and government resources — during the 2022 elections. It has been common, for example, for incumbent officials running for office to use government vehicles to transport supporters to campaign sorties or use government buildings to store their campaign materials. 

It has also been common for incumbent officials to be present during the delivery of government services. 

After the 2022 elections, Caritos said they saw the impact of ASR on contractual workers in government. “The leaders of departments identified with previous administrations, we’ve seen how they were placed on floating status,” she said. 

3. Comelec should prepare for new challenges due to digitalization. 

Technological advances have posed new challenges to the conduct of elections. It will be harder to monitor vote buying, for example, because money can now go through online transactions. In these cases, you can no longer mark physical money as evidence that can be presented in court, said Myline Urmenita, director of the Integrated Bar of the Philippines National Center for Legal Aid. 

The fight against vote buying and other election offenses also needs to go “high tech,” she said. 

Namfrel lawyer Mara Villegas said the financial institutions could be tapped to monitor vote buying, which she said could fall under the jurisdiction of the Anti-Money Laundering Council.

“Abuse of state resources is  part and parcel of the AMLC Act. Each financial institution has to report suspicious transactions and the threshold is really very low. The source of income cannot be justified,” she said. 

Villegas also cited other challenges such as online disinformation and exploitative artificial intelligence. “We also have to safeguard IT militarization, where foreign countries can also deploy threat actors in our local and national elections,” she said. 

4. Young people should join politics and commit to clean it up. 

Civil society groups such as Caritas Philippines and Lente have encouraged young people to join politics, a number of whom will be running in the elections in October. 

“The only way by which you can look at the long term and make things better is to start decent people at a younger age. Para pag pinalitan tayo, mas matitino,” said Guia. 

Telibert Laoc of the Democratic Insights Group pointed to the need to change the belief that politics is dirty because it is a  “self-fulfilling prophecy that discourages good people from running for office. “It makes politics exclusive kasi ayaw ng mga taong sumali tuloy e,” he said. 

5. Congress needs to pass priority bills seeking to reform election systems.

Comelec has acted on a number of reform proposals pushed by election watchdogs during PCIJ’s roundtable in July 2022. It implemented the Register Anywhere Program (RAP) to make voter registration more inclusive. It converted the Campaign Finance Office into a department — Political and Finance Affairs Department — which hopefully will have the powers and resources to investigate violations of the country’s campaign finance laws.

However, Congress appears to have no appetite to pass election-related bills. The House of Representatives has passed a number of election reform proposals, but Caritos said the bills are not moving in the Senate. They include bills allowing early voting for persons with disabilities and senior citizens, and increasing candidates’ spending limits. 

6. IT professionals urged to volunteer as Comelec procures new voting machines for the 2025 polls.

Namfrel chair Averia called on IT professionals to join poll watchdogs in monitoring Comelec procurement of new voting machines and other hardware that will be used in the 2025 national elections. 

“Kaunti lang nag-o-observe ng procurement process, ng mga bidding exercises. Kasi mas technical yung items that we purchase. Isang challenge yan,” Averia said. 

Averia said there’s a need for volunteers who understand not just the technology but also the country’s election systems. 

“Not all IT professionals understand elections. They may understand technology but they do not understand elections. They need an understanding of both,” he said. 

Comelec has finalized the terms of reference for the voting machines in 2025. The machines should be a precinct-based Optical Mark Recognition (OMR) or Optical Scan (OpScan) technology, with optional Direct Recording Equipment (DRE) capabilities. 

There are four prospective bidders, including Smartmatic, which provided the technology for the country’s last five elections. But groups have since opposed the participation of Smartmatic. (READ: 4 prospective bidders so far are eyeing P19-B contract for new voting machines in 2025)

Caritos said there should be enough time for voter education especially if new machines will be introduced during the 2025 elections. “Five elections na sanay tayo sa OMR. If we are using new machines, there’s a need to have a massive voter education again,” she said. (READ: Is it time for online voting?)

7. Comelec should be more transparent about the election processes. 

The poll watchdogs said Comelec’s information drive should not only focus on teaching voters how they will use the machines, but also how their votes are counted using the machines. 

Despite random manual audits of election results showing almost 100% accuracy, questions persist about the integrity of the election results.  

Villegas of Namfrel said it’s important to have a centralized group that could verify the veracity of votes online during elections. She said IT professionals may lend their expertise, which is similar to how Namfrel and the others mobilized on the ground to ensure the physical ballots were protected.

8. Address delays in preparations for the first BARMM elections

Caritos of Lente also flagged delays in the crafting of the implementing rules and regulations of the Bangsamoro Electoral Code. 

“Up to now wala pa rin siya. Wala kami naririnig na movement sa part ng Comelec. Alam namin na may IRR sa part ng parliament, but we’re expecting that the Comelec will take the lead in crafting the IRR for the Bangsamoro Electoral Code,” she said. 

Established in 2019, BARMM will hold its first regular elections in May 2025 after it was postponed from May 2022. 

9. Guarantee media freedom and access to information 

PCIJ Training Director Rowena Paraan also highlighted the importance of media freedom and access to information during elections. 

“Elections are always important for journalists. Ito raw ang measurement ng isang journalist. How they cover elections,” she said. 

Paraan cited past challenges in terms of freedom of information challenges — access to documents, access to candidates, and access to election activities. 

10. More collaboration between civil society groups 

Guia also called for more collaboration between civil society groups pushing for election reforms. 

“Civil society should come together, get stock of what happened in 2022, and try to come up with a common ground towards looking at 2025 and 2028,” said Guia. 

During the roundtable, the poll watchdog groups identified critical issues that voters need to understand and committed to work together in voter information drives.

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