One of the major complaints raised by the Anfrel observers in the last ARMM elections – the one that used those DREs and OMRs? – was that there were some underaged voters.

I tried to explain the reality of the registration situation in the ARMM; quite in vain, I suppose. Still, this report from the Inquirer really says it all.

DAVAO CITY – A big number of unregistered Filipinos, or those who have no birth certificates comes from Mindanao, an official of the National Statistics Office (NSO) said Thursday.

Carmelita Ericta, NSO administrator, said 10.62 million people from Mindanao, or 12 percent of the 88.57 million people included in the 2007 population census were not registered with local civil registrars (LCRs).

This is what we’ve been saying all along.There are many cases where parents bring their kids in for registration and swear up and down – some of them on the Quran even – that their kid is of legal age. Without birth certificates to go by, how can the election officer effectively contradict the parent? And the way I see it, it is far better to err on the side of enfranchisement than risk disenfranchising someone.

But of course, in the eyes of the hyper-critical, this has got to be a COMELEC failing. Totally unfair, I should say. It gets worse when the hyper-critical turn out to also have just enough knowledge to convincingly over-generalize about the value of cleaning up the voters list.

Don’t get me wrong: a clean list is essential. What is wrong is the assertion that a clean list is a condition sine qua non for clean elections. For one thing, the list is never very clean for long.

Under the law, the clean up of the list is a continuing preoccupation of the COMELEC. But the law also says that a certain number of days prior to an election, the list has to be locked down – no more changes or alterations made as a general rule. Now, even if you were to assume that the list was 100% clean on the day of the cut-off, it would be unreasonable to assume that the list would stay clean until election day. The only way for the list to remain pristine is if, on the cut-off day, people stopped dying, getting married, going to jail, changing residences, and so on. But of course, life doesn’t stop just because the list has been locked down. And so, seconds ater the lock down, the list starts getting dirty and inaccurate again. Deaths are no longer reported, for instance, and it’s not impossible for someone to look at the list on election day and see the name of a dead relative on there. Guess what the headlines will say the day after.

Read more?

And you know what? Let’s not even go all the way to the lock-down period. If there are no birth certificates in Mindanao, can you just imagine the state of death certificates? So if even the government entity charged with keeping track of these things can’t, how can the COMELEC de-list the dead?

Another reason why a clean list should not be considered an indispensable requisite for clean elections is the fact that election-day measures can be easily reinforced to ensure the ‘one man-one vote’ paradigm. Political parties have to be more gung-ho in fielding watchers, for one thing; watchdogs must learn to bark at the sight of irregularities, instead of waiting until they get the opportunity to hold a press conference; and ordinary voters too must not hesitate to report what they see to the proper authorities. Unfortunately, these simple measures require the expenditure of some effort and expense. I suppose, in the final analysis, it’s just plain easier to complain to the media.

The COMELEC, naturally, shouldn’t hide behind these doable-but-are-not-being-done measures either. It’s not enough for us to say ‘you should have done this but you didn’t’ and then just shrug our shoulders. On the contrary, the COMELEC should be proactive and maximize the technology we already have: biometrics.

Biometrics isn’t just for cleaning up the list, it’s also for making sure that once you’ve voted somewhere, you can’t vote again anywhere. That way, if you had ten false registrations, the minute you vote on one, the other nine are rendered useless. In which case, a clean list doesn’t become so under-significant anymore.

I’m no tech-wiz, but here’s what I mean:

Not exactly a sterling example of original thinking, but it is a reasonable schematic. The main problem is, of course, the blue arrow which represents an electronic link between the precincts and the main voter database where all the biometrics are stored. The other major problem is the fact that not all voters have had their biometrics enrolled.

So, ok. Biometrics will solve a lot of problems. But – just to get back to the topic – will it solve the problem of underage voters? As I told Tony the other night, it won’t. And anyone who says otherwise is sadly mistaken.

What to do then about underage voters?

Some solutions have been proposed and are (hopefully) being considered. One of them involves adding a step to the application process where the Election Registration Board is given the power to disapprove an application for registration on the basis of visual age cues. The problems with this solution are that visual age cues are notoriously unreliable, and that disapproving an application without solid basis might be beyond the pale of COMELEC authority since that would be tantamount to deciding on the existence of the registrant’s right to vote – something the COMELEC has no power to do, according to the Constitution.

We’re also trying a campaign of moral suasion directed at parents – to convince them not to use their children this way. But as with such things, there is really very little chance of success.

There’s also the big money-high-risk solution where you send election officers from house to house to determine who’s registered and who’s eligible for registration. In that case, the EO who wants to prevent an underage kid from registering would probably have to get affidavits from neighbors and such about the kid’s probable age, based on his neighbors’ (and communities’) recollection of his birth. Or something like that.

And finally, it is always helpful when people in the community actually come forward and challenge an applicant’s eligibility. Sadly, this is Mindanao we’re talking about here, and such an act might prove risky for intrepid challenger. Enter watchdogs. Watchdogs can file their own challenges on behalf of the individuals who see reason for speaking up.

Bottom line: underage voting is a difficult problem to overcome. The NSO’s statement regarding the lack of birth certificates in Mindanao only underscores that difficulty. And it is a difficulty that cannot be solved by the COMELEC alone.


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