The Role of Civil Society Organizations in Philippine Elections

By James Jimenez

One the most frequently asked questions thrown my way involved civil society organizations or CSOs. More specifically, those CSOs that get the much coveted Commission on Elections designation of “Accredited Citizens’ Arms.” People ask: what role do these CSOs actually play in elections? So we’ll try to answer that question today by focusing on three of the most prominent of these CSOs – the Parish Pastoral Council for Responsible Voting (PPCRV), the National Movement for Free Elections (Namfrel), and the Legal Network for Truthful Elections (LENTE).

The Role of CSOs in General

Think of elections as a massive jigsaw puzzle with a thousand different pieces. For the elections to be successful, all those pieces must be made to fit snugly with each other, in order to form a complete picture. Ordinarily, that job falls on the COMELEC – the sole government agency charged with the conduct of all elections, plebiscites, and referenda. Now if elections were just a simple matter of setting up polling places, letting people vote, and then counting the ballots afterward – as most people seem to mistakenly believe even to this day – then the COMELEC should be able to carry out the job all by itself. But the reality is that there is more to elections than just that.

And that is where CSOs come into the picture. In order to have a successful electoral exercise, many things have to come together and work smoothly. Voter education, for example, is absolutely necessary if we’re going to have a well-informed electorate; the bureaucratic operations under the hood of the elections – such as the procurement of election supplies – should also be kept an eye on, to ensure that everything remains on the level; and of course, the craft of election management must also be continually honed, to ensure that election policies are effective, responsive, and even-handed at all times.

Without voter education, the elections will be dismissed as not being truly reflective of the electorate’s informed will; if the bureaucratic processes behind the elections are tainted with irregularity, the whole electoral exercise will be considered illegitimate; and if election management policies, practices, and strategies are not continuously updated and upgraded, the entire electoral process becomes vulnerable to the tireless efforts of cheaters. In other words, in order for elections to be considered successful, all these other considerations – and many others besides – must be considered just as important as ensuring that the act of voting actually happens. And for this, COMELEC needs help.

PPRCV: The Guardian of Voter Education and Empowerment

Giving the COMELEC much needed assistance in the field of over education is the Parish Pastoral Council for Responsible Voting (PPRCV). With its massive network of volunteers, PPCRV is able to mobilize massive resources all the way down to the grassroots, reaching voters that COMELEC would be hard-pressed to reach.

PPCRV volunteers conduct strictly non-partisan voter-education seminars, information drives, and get-out-the-vote campaigns, giving voters the necessary knowledge and insight to make informed decisions on election day. In addition, PPCRV routinely field election day watchers who station themselves at polling places nationwide, observing the conduct of elections and running voter assistance desks. These capabilities have resulted in PPRCV being frequently designated by the COMELEC as an Accredited Citizen’s Arm.

In recent years, as PPRCV’s network of volunteers continues to grow – and therefore attract more skills to its pool of capabilities – PPCRV has also undertaken additional roles that are necessary for ensuring the trustworthiness of elections. In 2022, for example, PPCRV ran a program to manually verify the printed election returns coming in from vote counting machines (VCM) from all over the country.

Namfrel: The Watchdog of Electoral Integrity

Namfrel really shot to prominence as an election watchdog during the 1986 snap elections. Not a lot of people know, however, that as early as 1984, Namfrel already held the designation of Accredited Citizens Arm for Operation Quick Count – a project to use modern technologies (like fax machines!) to facilitate the vote counting process. The Quick Count was strictly unofficial, of course, but it was conducted parallel to the tremendously slower official count, and functioned to give the public at least an idea of how the results were shaping up.

Since then, Namfrelhas maintained its presence in the field of electoral management, eventually transitioning away from the Operation Quick Count – which was rendered obsolete by the adoption of electronic transmission systems in 2010, with the advent of full election automation – to now monitoring a wide array of key electoral activities. Most prominently, Namfrel is one of the leading lights in monitoring the COMELEC’s multi-faceted automated election systems project, fielding elections technology experts to the Commission’s various advisory bodies.

Lente: The Advocate for Electoral Reform and Legal Compliance

Focusing on electoral reform and keeping COMELEC honest, so to speak, is the Legal Network for Truthful Elections (Lente). Lente brings to bear considerable legal resources – legal experts, election lawyers, law students, and trained paralegals – in its efforts to assist the COMELEC in such diverse fields as campaign finance reforms, random manual testing, and vote monitoring. In the last elections, for instance, LENTE played a pivotal role as the COMELEC’s partner – along with the Philippine Institute of Certified Public Accountants (PICPA) and the Philippine Statistics Authority (PSA) – in determining the accuracy of the counting machines used in the 2022 National and Local Elections, by randomly auditing VCMs from literally all over the country. The massive undertaking took more than a month to complete and eventually revealed the VCMs to have a better than 99% accuracy rate in reading the voters’ ballots.

Finding Their Place: How Other CSOs Can Contribute to the Electoral Puzzle

Apart from PPRCV, Namfrel, and Lente, there are any number of other CSOs that can potentially contribute to the electoral puzzle in their own unique ways. From voter mobilization to election day voter assistance; from social media monitoring to fact-checking misinformation, there exists a myriad of aspects of election management that COMELEC can use some help on. All that’s really needed is for ordinary citizens to identify a need and to organize themselves to address that need.

In the grand scheme of Philippine elections, it is important to always remember that we are all stakeholders in the elections. More importantly, when we band together, we are all able to contribute something worthwhile to the overarching task of continually making the electoral process easier, more accessible, and more trustworthy for the greatest number of Filipinos. When we do that, either as individuals or as members of a CSO, then we will have helped complete our section of the puzzle, bringing us that much closer to seeing the completed picture of a vibrant democracy for all.


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