HELPING KEEP DEMOCRACY ALIVE
As we approach the anniversary of the 2022 elections, Garcia highlights the direction of the poll body and its importance in ensuring clean and honest elections.
By Godfrey T. Dancel
PHOTOGRAPHY BY ROMEO PERALTA, JR.
COMELEC CHAIRPERSON GEORGE M. GARCIA TALKS ABOUT THE IMPORTANT ROLE OF CLEAN, HONEST, AND CREDIBLE ELECTIONS IN KEEPING DEMOCRACY ALIVE, AND HOW HE ENVISIONS THE POLL BODY SIX YEARS FROM NOW.
In March 2022, Atty. George Erwin M. Garcia was appointed by then-President Rodrigo R. Duterte as commissioner of the Commission on Elections (COMELEC). His appointment, according to Garcia himself, “was completely and totally unexpected.” After all, he had not applied for the position. However, the country’s top leader must have thought that Garcia’s expertise would serve the poll body well.
Garcia, essentially, had the credentials to be an official of one of the bastions of Philippine democracy: he was a veteran election law practitioner, respected member of the academe, Mandatory Continuing Legal Education (MCLE) lecturer and resource speaker, and radio and television political talk show host. As an election lawyer, Garcia had handled cases against Duterte and for President Ferdinand Marcos, Jr., among others.
Even as his initial stint in the COMELEC hit a snag, Garcia was later appointed by Marcos to head the commission. Following a quick confirmation by the Commission on Appointments (CA), Garcia will serve as COMELEC chairperson until February 2029.
CLEAR MANDATE, CLEAR DIRECTION
The importance of the COMELEC can be gleaned from it being a constitutional commission. “People have to understand that the COMELEC’s mandate is actually a constitutional duty,” Garcia states. “Elections are always part and parcel of democracy. Without elections, then there can be no real democracy in our country.” “As far as me, the chairman of the COMELEC is concerned, my mandate is not only to conduct elections or to enforce and administer election laws in our country. More importantly, it is to protect and keep our democracy alive, [to maintain] the vibrancy of our democracy,” he stresses.
Garcia is bent on making the COMELEC a truly empowered, independent, and fully modernized government institution that is capable of ensuring credible electoral exercises in partnership with an empowered and enlightened citizenry.
Among the many functions of the COMELEC, the chairman identifies three which ordinary Filipinos could easily relate to. “Of course, we always have to confirm, affirm, support, and uphold the right of the people to vote. The right of suffrage is guaranteed by the Constitution. Secondly, we should ensure that the votes of the people are preserved and properly counted, and at the same time ensure that the integrity of the same is protected. Meaning, whoever is the choice of the people should be reflected in our proclamations. Third, and most importantly, the COMELEC should always keep the people’s trust in our electoral system.”
“It’s the COMELEC’s duty to conduct electoral activities, and of course we register voters. We register voters not only here in the Philippines, but also abroad for overseas voting. The Commission performs tasks not only during elections. We have other tasks even a day after an election, preparatory to the next electoral exercise,” the hands-on leader expounds, countering the misconception that the COMELEC is only relevant during elections.
The direction toward which Garcia wants to take the COMELEC is clear. He is bent on making the body a truly empowered, independent, and fully modernized government institution that is capable of ensuring credible electoral exercises in partnership with an empowered and enlightened citizenry.
Another hallmark of Garcia’s leadership is his focus on accountability and transparency. Transitioning from private practice to public service is an adjustment, especially in an agency that has always been subject to public scrutiny, whether grounded in reality or otherwise. Instead of taking a defensive stance, the chairman recognizes that public criticism is only loud because it reflects the people’s desire to safeguard their votes and protect the electoral process. He believes that it is incumbent upon the COMELEC to make its processes and actions known to the public, and for its Education and Information Department to take the lead in responding to the public’s questions. He has spent the first few months of his term reaching out to civic organizations and citizens arms, as well as the media, to address issues and ensure that the commission is receptive and open to comments and suggestions. Garcia understands that openness and transparency are necessary to build an institution that is accountable, and that credibility is just as important as integrity.
Gauging from the May 2022 elections, the COMELEC is well on the right track. To start with, a total of 65.75 million Filipinos registered to vote, indicative not only of the people’s interest but their readiness to take part in the elections and beyond. Of this number, almost 55.3 million voters cast their vote. The 84.1 percent voter turnout is the highest not only under the automated election system but in the history of Philippine elections. Asked what contributed to the record turnout, Garcia answers, “I think it’s because we Filipinos are becoming more mature in how we want to have a part in [charting] our future, in making the proper roadmap for the future of our country, in ensuring that the right leaders will be elected. Not only the old, but more particularly the young voters, are now more concerned about ensuring that they will be the ones to control their destinies and they’ll be able to select their own leaders.”
Garcia explains that the turnout is also an indicator of the electorate’s trust in the country’s electoral system. “We should look into whether the people were so afraid to cast their votes that they stayed home and did not go to the precincts. So [more than] 84 percent said, “No, we will cast our votes, we are not afraid, we want to vote.”
That is very, very important. Even if there were several difficulties during the election of 2022, such as several machines malfunctioning or long queues in the polling precincts, our countrymen still trooped to the polling places to cast their votes. Why? Because of their love of country,” the Bachelor of Arts in Political Science graduate (cum laude) of the Lyceum of the Philippines University (LPU) adds.
The random manual audit that came after the canvassing of votes also proved monumental for COMELEC, as it achieved a nearly perfect score. After manually counting the votes contained in almost 750 ballot boxes from all over the country, the Random Manual Audit Committee, composed of representatives from civil society organizations as well as the Philippine Statistics Authority (PSA) and COMELEC, reported a 99.96 percent accuracy. In short, the vote counting machines accurately counted the votes cast in the elections.
The almost-perfect random manual audit results and the generally peaceful conduct of the elections contributed to the 82 percent trust rating the people had in the credibility and accuracy of the election results, as reported by Pulse Asia. This figure is up two percentage points from the 2019 elections and eight percentage points from the 2016 polls.
Under Garcia’s watch, the poll body is expected not only to turn out recordbreaking performances, but also bring about significant changes in the way people view elections and other electoral exercises.
TOWARD VOTER MATURITY
Aside from quantity, Garcia wants quality when it comes to voters. “When it comes to ensuring that the voters will be voting, we have no problem with that. [But there is something] more important, I think, not only for the COMELEC, but also for non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and civil society groups. That is, how could we ensure that the people will not only be voting, but will be voting for the right candidates? That is a different matter altogether,” he underscores. Garcia, who holds a Master of Laws degree from the Pamantasan ng Lungsod ng Maynila (PLM), stresses that while Filipinos have achieved maturity in terms of their passion to vote, he sees that there is still much to be done for Filipinos to reach the level of maturity needed to consistently elect the right leaders. “That, we cannot guarantee [yet],” he admits.
What the chairman can guarantee, however, is that the COMELEC will not only carry on but intensify and widen the reach of its voter education efforts. As part of the preparations for the Sangguniang Kabataan (SK) and barangay elections, for instance, the COMELEC will strive to inform the youth voters in far-flung areas of their right to vote, the importance of choosing the right leaders, and of the electoral process.
A LISTENING AND INCLUSIVE LEADER
Garcia adheres to the idea that a good leader is one who listens and ensures inclusiveness. “When you listen, it’s not you who controls or dominates the decision-making process in your institution,” he says. For his part, he makes it a point to consult other COMELEC officials, his subordinates, veteran election management experts, and even people outside the commission. For him, “a good leader is one who listens, not one who tells others to follow; somebody whom others will follow simply because they believe in the person. There’s a great difference between the two.”
In connection with this, the chairman has taken concrete steps to address issues that have long hounded the commission. These include ensuring the speedy disposition of election cases, improvements in the voter registration program, improvement of the overseas voting and registration system, and revival of the Voter’s ID program.
Garcia has also taken due notice of the pain points that became evident during last year’s elections. “It’s a pity how our elders, persons with disability (PWDs) and pregnant women have to endure so much by having to vote together with all other voters,” Garcia laments. “Some of them came in wheelchairs, others in crutches or using canes. They ended up lining up for so long, being pushed around, squeezing themselves into cramped spaces. Some even had to go up to the second floor of their polling centers. All these, just so they could vote. With their condition, they should not be subjected to such suffering.”
The chairman also wants overseas Filipino workers (OFWs) and Filipinos residing abroad to have a better experience in every election. If he had his way, there should never be a repeat of the ordeal that some Filipino voters in Hong Kong and Singapore had to endure in May 2022. With the heavy turnout, consular officials had to deal with large crowds, insufficient chairs and tables for use by voters, and other concerns. “Siguro nga dapat pag-isipan na rin natin ang internet voting para sa ating mga OFW, mga Filipino sa ibang bansa (Perhaps it is high time that we consider internet voting for OFWs, for Filipinos living abroad). Internet voting would be much better, so long as we are able to ensure that the votes are protected, that the secrecy of the ballots or the votes will be protected. The way I see it, that will greatly ease the voting on election day,” he shares. Internally, Garcia wants to ensure inclusiveness inside the COMELEC. “No one should be left behind,” he stresses. “Ibig sabihin, kapag ang isa ay umaangat, dapat lahat umaangat din. Kung may kaalaman ang iba, dapat lahat may kaalaman din. (This means that everyone should be given equal chances for growth. If we are to equip some with knowledge, we have to likewise equip the others with the same.) This, because we are one in the commission—one institution, one commission, one purpose, para sa bayan (for the country).”
ADDRESSING COMELEC CONCERNS
Garcia’s efforts to bring about changes in the COMELEC started during his stint as commissioner. His appointment as head of the poll body gives him even more power—and responsibility—to make sure that the commission is able to properly perform its mandate. “We have to ensure that we are able to establish and put into place electoral reforms, both structural and legislative,” he states. “Within the COMELEC, we have to ensure that our funds are properly disbursed, spent, and accounted for. This should go for every single cent that we spend because it’s not ours. These are public funds,” he stresses. “Number two, we have to train and educate our people. Our people also need constant education, and that is why we are establishing the COMELEC Academy that will train and educate not just our incumbent employees, but even those that we are going to hire. We will make sure that the learning modules given to them are comprehensive, and thus will equip them with the necessary knowledge so that they could perform their tasks effectively,” he continues. “At the same time, we need legislative reforms, such as [improved] laws. I have 31 proposed pieces of legislation, including amendments to the Party-List Law and the Omnibus Election Code. We are implementing our elections using an election code enacted circa 1985. It is very difficult on the part of the Commission to implement laws which are circa 1985. It is high time we make changes to these laws and other regulations,” laments the former PLM College of Law dean.
MANAGEMENT, STRUCTURAL, AND LEGAL REFORM AGENDA
The pieces of legislation Garcia is referring to are part of his Management, Structural, and Legal Reform Agenda, which is a comprehensive list of the reforms that he wants to implement at the Commission. One of these is the move to criminalize the practice of running as a nuisance candidate. Nuisance candidates have, for the longest time, been messing with—or been used to mess with—the country’s electoral system. By running simply to oppose legitimate candidates who are their namesakes or near-namesakes and not to offer themselves as real choices, these candidates make a mockery of the electoral system and deprive other candidates of the chance to serve the people. More than the present penalty of disqualification as provided for in the Omnibus Election Code, Garcia wants imprisonment and a fine for nuisance candidates.
To remedy the election day-related plight of vulnerable groups, Garcia wants to accord them the same treatment given to other groups under the Synchronized Elections Law. “One of the priority pieces of legislation that we are pushing for is to allow our senior citizens, our PWDs, and pregnant women to vote early,” he reveals. “We allow media people to vote ahead of the election, or even our overseas Filipinos to vote one month before the election. Why can’t we allow those from vulnerable sectors or groups to vote ahead of everybody else?” Letting those from the above-mentioned groups vote early would ensure that they will not only be protected physically, but that their right of suffrage is likewise protected.
Draft pieces of legislation regarding the above, together with those for other issues including the qualifications of partylist nominees and substitution of independent candidates, have already been submitted by the COMELEC to Congress for appropriate action. The poll body’s goal is to have the appropriate legislation before the filing of certificates of candidacy for the 2025 elections. Incidentally, such exercise is set to happen just a year and a half from now.
Seeking to improve the voter registration experience and carry out a more inclusive, participatory, and accessible system of voter registration, the COMELEC pilot tested its Register Anywhere Program (RAP) from December 2022 to January this year. Individuals studying, working, or temporarily living in areas outside their city or municipality of permanent residence were able to register in malls, schools, and government offices in Metro Manila and key cities around the country. This paved the way for more than 1.5 million voters to register for the barangay, SK and regular elections, update and correct their records, and reactivate or transfer their registration. With the highly successful pilot test, the RAP is expected to be implemented nationwide by 2024.
More than half a year into his term, Garcia has shown what a competent chairman can do for the COMELEC. In the next six and a half years, he wants to embed his footprints in the Commission by way of institutionalizing standards and processes that will ensure the people’s enjoyment of their right of suffrage and of the benefits of democracy. “Things should always be predictable for anyone whenever they deal with the Commission on Elections,” he emphasizes. “Predictability is so important in a government institution. You do not change the rules in the middle of a ball game. You do not change policies simply because it suits an individual. You ensure that policies are permanent because these have passed the test of time.” “Sobrang hirap ng trabaho (the task at hand is formidable), but we’re not complaining,” Garcia declares. “We actually appreciate the opportunity given to us by our people to serve them in the best way possible, in the best way that we know: by ensuring honest, orderly, and credible elections.”