FOR THE FILIPINO, elections day is a gathering akin to a fiesta. Almost everyone is rooting for a candidate, up early to set up their own posts, ready to manifest their support. Amidst all these, there is one group that has been laboring for the entire week, or probably longer, before the day itself of the elections. The group has been attending seminars hosted by the Commission on Elections (COMELEC), and is in charge of transferring election paraphernalia from the local COMELEC offices to their assigned precincts. Come Election Day, sure enough, the group will be up even before the break of dawn. Until the last vote is casted, then canvassed and winners proclaimed, they are held in service of the government. That is beside the fact that their meager honoraria may come months past its deadline.
Compelled by Law
Public School Teachers are called to perform election duties under the law. According to Section 13 of the Republic Act (R.A.) No. 6646, also known as the Election Reform Law of 1987, the composition of the Board of Election Inspectors (BEIs) shall be one chairman and two members, “one of whom shall be designated as poll clerk, all of whom shall be public school teachers, giving preference to those with permanent appointments.” The same composition and requirement for public school teacher for the Board of Election Tellers (BETs) is decreed under Section 40 of the Omnibus Election Code. Thus, the COMELEC was given the mandate to compel public school teachers to render poll service either as part of the BETs or BEIs, to serve during the barangay or national elections, respectively.
Aside from performing the task of supervising the election process in the polling precincts from start to end, the public is well aware that there have been, in past elections, public teachers exposed to threats, accidents, and even death during their service. One express provision by law which may limit the scope of the compulsion for the designation of public school teachers, especially in assigning them to far off their duty stations or precincts, is found in R.A. No. 4670 or the Magna Carta for Public School Teachers which has for its policy, among others, the promotion and improvement of the working conditions of public school teachers. Section 6 of this law refers to the rule that the consent of the teacher is required in case of his/her transfer to another station except for cause and when provided by law. It also provides that “no transfers whatever shall be made three months before any local or national election.” In addition, Article 261 of the Omnibus Election Code states that the transfer of public school teachers within the election period must be with the approval of the COMELEC, otherwise it is considered an election offense penalized by law.
Given the harassment, several forms of violence and intimidation, security issues and piles of cheating cases against them brought by accusative losing candidates, and other than the protectionist provisions of the law for the public school teachers related to their election service (particularly on transfers), the current law does not give a public teacher much option.
Option for the Teachers
During the 16th Congress, the House Committee on Suffrage and Electoral Reforms filed five (5) bills, all are united in their thrust: to transform compulsory election service into voluntary and at the same time, to open avenues for other eligible candidates to serve as BEIs and BETs. The following bills, with their respective authors, were filed to fulfill such thrust: House Bill (HB) No. 444 filed by Rep. Antonio L. Tinio, HB No. 3125 by Rep. Regina Ongsiako Reyes, HB No. 3205 by Rep Erlinda M. Santiago, HB No. 3255 by Rep. Eric L. Olivarez and HB No. 3514 by Rep. Ma. Leonor Gerona-Robredo. One salient feature of these bills is changing the nature of the election service by the public school teachers from mandatory to voluntary. These bills also included in their proposed reforms the improved honoraria and allowance rates, insurance coverage, legal assistance and other benefits for our electoral service workers. But then again, the main stumbling block presented by these bills is the question: If our public teachers would not be compelled to serve, who will?
Initiating the Reform
All for democracy through improved and honest electoral systems, the Legal Network for Truthful Elections (LENTE), in partnership with COMELEC, embarked on a monitoring and profiling project entitled Project Teacher for the BETs who are not public school teachers, primarily to answer such qualms and to let change happen. The research project aims to provide answers through the assessment of the availability, efficiency and competency of such class of volunteers. Holding on to realize the policy of the State to ensure free, honest, peaceful, credible and informed elections by improving on the election process and adopting systems, the research was done to crunch numbers which can lay the ground for the proposal. The pilot program was launched in clustered precinct cases, including regular precincts, precincts in COMELEC-identified hotspot areas, precincts serving Indigenous People voters, Persons with Disability voters and Detainee voters. Some of the areas covered by the actual monitoring were located in Ilocos Sur (North Luzon), Pasay, Pateros (National Capital Region), Cavite, Palawan (South Luzon), Marinduque, Cebu (Visayas), Davao del Norte, Zamboanga del Norte (Mindanao), Sulu, Maguindanao and Cotabato City (Autonomous Region of Muslim Mindanao).
The profiling and research project utilized a standard monitoring tool on the day of the latest Barangay Elections in 2013 and focused interviews of election officers and volunteer non-teacher BETs. The standard monitoring tool is basically a checklist, composed of the step by step instructions from the General Instruction Sheet from the COMELEC. Ultimately, the results showed that non-teacher BETs are available in all of the areas where election officers were interviewed and that most of those who were appointed come mostly from the government sector. But, there is an apparent gap in engaging the civic societies to volunteer, primarily because of the practice of personal referral for the appointees, lacking the systematic way of applying for the positions.
The prospect application process shall be primarily regulated by the COMELEC, mainly because the BEIs and the BETs shall, in accordance with the law, serve as the deputies of the Commission. The movement shall facilitate the integration of the non- public teacher volunteers into the system. A sample enumeration of non-public school teacher volunteers is given by the law. R.A. No. 6646 actually gives a list of the electoral system’s alternatives for public school teachers. Based on Article 13 of the law, these are “teachers in private schools, employees in the civil service, or other citizens of known probity and competence who are registered voters of the city or municipality” to which they will serve. However, the alternatives will apply only when there is insufficiency of public school teachers.
The transformation from the mandatory to the voluntary nature of election work shall ultimately imbibe in the prospect volunteers the accountability that was, since time immemorial, lacking in the system of our elections. It is a revolutionary move, which, might entail additional work for all, but could make our democracy be more realistic and accessible more than ever.
*with contributions by Nellaine Soliman
Helen Graido is a senior year student of the Ateneo Law School and a member of the Legal Network for Truthful Elections (LENTE)