MANILA, Philippines – A bill in the House of Representatives seeks to allow public school teachers to opt out of election duty, as well as be entitled to higher honorarium and other benefits if they choose to render election service.
Section 4 of the proposed Election Service Reform Act of 2014 states that a public school teacher "may refuse from rendering election service on grounds, such as but not limited to, health, age, or security concerns."
It seeks to authorize the appointment of other qualified citizens in their place. They are the following, in order of preference:
All qualified replacements should be registered voters. The chairperson of the elections board should still be a public school teacher, however, the bill says.
In cases when there may not be enough qualified voters to do election duties, "the [Comelec] may oblige qualified public school teachers to render election service."
The bill expands the options for substitute election workers under Republic Act 6646 or the Election Reforms Law of 1987. The current law limits the choices to 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 be appointed for election duty.
The bill also provides for fixed compensation, death, or medical assistance for election-related risks, legal assistance and indemnification, and service credit for the public school teachers.
If ever the bill becomes law, the following honoraria will be provided:
An additional P1,000 (around $22) travel allowance is also provided under the bill. These honoraria and allowances should be paid not more than 15 days after an election.
The rates shall be reviewed by Comelec, in consultation with DepEd, every 3 years, says the bill.
The bill has been included in the report of the House committee on suffrage and electoral reforms on March 11, reported lawyer Rona Ann Caritos, executive director of the election watchdog Lente in a press conference on Wednesday, March 19.
Lente (or the Legal Network for Truthful Elections) is hopeful that the bill would be passed in time for the 2016 national elections.
Benjo Basas of the Teacher's Dignity Coalition said that despite the small compensation and huge sacrifices of public school teachers, they continue to serve during elections. He hailed the increase in honoraria, and the inclusion of other benefits in the bill.
"Teachers would still be in the frontlines of election service, even if it becomes voluntary. We are more than willing to help. We consider election duty as our patriotic duty," Basas said.
Corazon Ignacio of the National Citizens' Movement for Free Elections (Namfrel) cited the case in the country of Bangladesh, where ordinary citizens – from bank tellers to college students – apply for election duty.
"Election is a civic engangement. The more sectors are involved, the more participation there are in the community", Ignacio said. "Let's open [election duty] to everyone [here]. Let us test the Filipino people. Will they participate?" she asked.
However, some inquired about the level of accountability of non-teacher personnel, compared to teachers.
"What's our guarantee that if something goes wrong after the elections, do we have redress against them?" asked laywer Tina Gilapan of Comelec. Caritos replied that they could be charged with an election offense.
"The process of selection of non-teachers should be very clear. Otherwise, the credibility not only of the BETs but also of the entire election will suffer," added Rowena Paraan of the National Union of Journalists of the Philippines (NUJP).
Survey of election volunteers
In connection with this proposed bill, Lente conducted a research on the effect of having non-public school teachers as BET members.
For Lente's "Teacher Project," volunteers rendered election duties as part of the BET in 20 select polling precincts across the country during the barangay polls last October 28, 2013. Comelec approved the conduct of the research through Resolution 9780.
The research assessed the availability, knowledge, and effective performance of non-teacher BETs side-by-side the teacher BETs.
After interviewing the election officers for the study, the research showed that most election officers picked the non-teacher BETs based mainly on their qualifications and experience in past elections, not on their political affiliations.
The research also revealed that 70% of the interviewed election officers admitted to appointing non-public school teachers as a BET member. "It's a wide, non-formal practice, and discretional on the part of the election officer," explained Caritos.
Most of the non-teacher BETs were referred by local government staff, DepEd supervisors, or citizen organizations.
The volunteers – designated as a third BET member, assisting the chairman and second member – also attended election duty briefings and training sessions, the same taken by election officers.
In a subsequent profiling by Lente, most of the non-teacher BETs were from the government sector, with the majority coming from municipal or city government offices. Other non-teacher BETs were mostly private school teachers, college graduates, civil service employees, or CSO volunteers.
The research concluded that "having non-public school teachers to render election service do not affect the outcome of the elections."
"The non-public school BETs are effective in performing important and critical BET election functions," research results showed. The volunteers and the election officials acted as a team, added Caritos.
"Both teacher and non-teacher BETs performed well on all monitoring points for processes before, during, and after elections," the research said.
Besides in regular precincts, the "Teacher Project" was also conducted in the following: