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What's going on? Is the ARMM voters' list padded again?

Part 1 of 3

MANILA, Philippines – The Commission on Elections (Comelec) reported that around 54.36 million are eligible to cast their votes in this year’s elections – beating the previous 52.02 million registered voters in 2013.

This jump is equivalent to a 4.52% increase in the national voting population from 2013 to 2016.

But while the national average is that low only, the notorious Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (ARMM), based on past trends, exceeded it by a mile.

Latest Comelec figures show that all regions registered a single-digit percentage change in voter population for 2016 – except ARMM, which registered a huge 26.87% increase.

The nearest to ARMM's record is CARAGA, which recorded a 7.01% voter registration increase.

The Comelec’s provincial data of voter registration further show just how far the increase of each ARMM province is compared to the national average.

Among the 80 provinces (not counting the newly-created Davao Occidental), the 5 ARMM provinces lead in terms of voter population increase for 2016.

On the map below, the red shades represent the voter population increase from 2013 to 2016. A very light red shade means the province has zero to negative population change; a medium red shade means the province has between 0 and 11% voter population increase; and a dark red shade means the province has more than an 11% voter population increase.

This year’s big leap in ARMM voter population is a big contrast to what happened in 2013, when the region’s voter number decreased after a general voter registration.

Same issue this year?

ARMM may have lost more than 400,000 names in its voters' list in 2013, yet it was able to regain almost the same number of names in 2016.

This is not surprising, according to Manny Tibigar of the Comelec's Election Barangay Affairs Department (EBAD).

“The voters' list was shortened [in 2013] because of the general voter registration. It’s only normal to regain the numbers this year,” Tibigar told Rappler.

He dismissed the idea that the voter population increase may be due to padding. “Actually, the number of registrants lessened because the AFIS (Automated Fingerprint Identification System) eliminated double entries,” he said.

The figures, however, intrigued National Citizens' Movement for Free Elections (Namfrel) head Eric Jude Alvia. “It doesn’t make sense, unless there’s net migration which is unlikely,” Alvia told Rappler.

He said it's possible that this trend reflects a flaw in the voter registration system. “AFIS may have a screening effect, but it can’t screen a person if he is underage,” he said.

Registration of minors has been a problem in ARMM voter registration in the past. “That part of the country is very notorious for that. A ballot is seen as a commodity there. Voters will really look for opportunities to earn, including this,” Alvia said.

In defense, Tibigar explained that they were able to weed out the minor registrants in the voters' list, adding that they have the necessary documents to prove it.

Tibigar added that similar to the 2012 ARMM general registration, election officers initially allowed minor registrants to fill up forms to avoid unnecessary delays in the registration centers. But these registrants were later on removed after screening.

Past figures

The padding of voters' lists had been reported in various parts of the country in the past elections. But data provide clearer evidence to suspect such activity in ARMM.

Comelec figures show that the region has been deviating from the national average of voting population increases in the past. The most striking spike was evident in the 2007 elections.

The National Census and Statistics Board (NSCB), however, noted that the annual average population growth in the country (estimated for the years 2005 to 2010) is only at 1.95% – making ARMM’s growth quite suprising.

Moreover, the National Statistics Office (NSO) revealed in 2012 more discrepancy based on census reports. While the country's population rate rose 1.89% from 2000 to 2007, ARMM registered a 5.46% growth during the same period.

This led to the ARMM general voter registration in 2012. From 1.88 million voters in the 2010 elections, the general registration removed minors and multiple registrants in the voters' list, and brought down the voting population of ARMM to 1.47 million voters in the 2013 elections.

Voter list padding is just one of the lingering electoral issues in ARMM – along with rampant cases of election violence and massive cheating. Ensuring clean elections in the region is important since tight national races are usually decided here.

Can we be assured of a clean voters' list in ARMM – and consequently, a fair election in the region – this year? –