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Reform Addresses Need for Impartial Election Staff in the Philippines

October 18, 2017

By Mari Chrys Pablo

On October 2, Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte signed a law postponing barangay (village) and Sangguniang Kabataan (youth) elections to May 2018—less than one month before they were scheduled to take place on October 23. The move marks the second postponement of local elections under Duterte, who claimed that the elections could interfere with his administration’s ongoing fight to eradicate drugs at the barangay level.

Philippines elections

Election staff help voters during elections. The Election Service Reform Act (ESRA) aims to reduce political interference in elections by allowing public school teachers to opt out of election service.

Had elections taken place, it would have been the first chance to implement the Election Service Reform Act (ESRA), a law signed in 2016 by then president Benigno Aquino that aims to reduce political interference by allowing public school teachers to opt out of election service on grounds of health, age, or security concerns. Previously, public school teachers in the Philippines were mandated to serve as election staff as stipulated in the Election Reforms Law of 1987. While this provided a capable and available workforce, one of the unintended consequences was the creation of incentives for politicians to influence teacher hiring, promotion, placements, and even use of local funds for education.

Four years ago, the Australian Embassy in Manila and The Asia Foundation, through its Coalitions for Change (CfC) program, supported the Legal Network for Truthful Elections (LENTE) to begin an initiative that helped pave the way for the passage of the ESRA. To better understand the practices of election staff appointments, LENTE conducted a pilot project, endorsed by the Commission on Elections (COMELEC), in which they deployed non-public school teachers in 20 precincts nationwide to serve as election staff during 2013 local elections.

Findings from a survey of election officers were revealing: 72 percent of election officers admitted that there were appointments of non-public school teachers as members of the Board of Election Tellers in their precincts during the 2013 local elections. The research provided compelling evidence of the widespread, albeit illegal practice of appointing non-public school teachers to serve as election staff. As there were no clear criteria for eligibility, even relatives and employees of local government officials were appointed as staff during the elections. These practices raised serious questions about the impartiality of election staff and credibility of elections in these areas.

Based on the pilot test and research findings, LENTE, working with reform partners, turned its focus to options for amending the Electoral Reforms Law of 1987, specifically to open election service for non-public school teachers and introduce criteria for determining eligibility to serve as election staff. The coalition acknowledged that supporting change in the legislation would require support from relevant government agencies and stakeholders. As early as 2013, LENTE engaged a range of partners, including the legislative bodies (House of Representatives and Senate of the Philippines), national government agencies (COMELEC), the Department of Education (DepEd) and the Department of Budget and Management (DBM), and teachers’ organizations, such as the Teachers Dignity Coalition (TDC), Alliance of Concerned Teachers (ACT), and the Philippine Public School Teachers Association (PPSTA). Consolidating support with these stakeholders was an important component of ensuring that the reform was politically possible by minimizing opposition and building a coalition supporters, especially at the early stages of the reform.

During coalition-building efforts, LENTE encountered another issue: the need to improve benefits for public school teachers serving as Board of Election Inspectors (BEI). LENTE realized that working to improve teachers’ benefits as BEIs was critical to addressing a long-running concern, and would serve as an opportunity to bring the teacher associations into the coalition. LENTE worked with Department of Budget and Management and the House Committee on Appropriations to include teachers benefits into the ESRA.

Most importantly, LENTE worked with key legislators to pass the ESRA in the Congress and Senate. Careful political coordination and timely provision of technical inputs toward achieving the coalition’s objectives proved “thinking and working politically” to be the most feasible approach to achieving a reform.

To ensure effective implementation, LENTE supported the COMELEC process in drafting the Implementing Rules and Regulations (IRR) of ESRA. Last month, COMELEC issued ESRA IRR through Resolution No. 10194. While the reform’s initial key objective was to reduce political interference in teacher hiring and promotions remains unproved until the implementation of the new law, the reform has already introduced three important changes:

Ability of public school teachers to opt out of election service. This reform allows COMELEC to assign a broader range of citizens to serve as election staff and also enables teachers to protect themselves from political pressure and to take into account personal considerations such as health and safety when deciding if election service is beneficial or not to their welfare.

Introduction of a process and criteria for selecting non-teacher election staff. The findings from the research and pilot test during the 2013 barangay elections revealed the lack of criteria and mechanisms for choosing non-teachers as election staff. In many cases, partisan local government employees were enlisted to serve at polling places. ESRA establishes clear formal criteria and procedures for choosing non-teachers as election inspectors.

Tangible improvement in teacher welfare. ESRA doubles the honoraria of the chairman of the BEIs from PhP 3,000-6,000 (USD$59-118), as well as providing increases for the board and the DepEd supervisor. Another benefit is the establishment of a legal indemnification package for BEI members rendering election service. Since every election about 100 teachers are accused of violation of election rules by losing candidates, legal assistance provided by ESRA will help persons rendering election service to engage services of lawyers for cases filed against them.

As May 2018 elections approach, there are grounds for hope that these improvements and reforms will contribute to fairer, cleaner, and more participatory elections in the Philippines.

Mari Chrys Pablo is a senior program officer for The Asia Foundation in the Philippines. The views and opinions expressed here are those of the author and not those of The Asia Foundation or its funder.

Related locations: Philippines
Related programs: Elections, Law and Justice

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