teachers_ballots.jpgIn just over a week, our country will once again find itself thrown into the frenetic and chaotic enterprise that is the national elections, although this time it will come in the form of a modernized, automated voting system care of Smartmatic.

This automated electoral process will signal a transition from the time-honored (albeit laborious) means of tallying ballots through manual counting—with the use of blackboards, manila paper, chalk, and markers—to a purportedly faster, more efficient, and hassle-free way of counting votes. Casting our votes will be as simple as slipping our ballots into the Smartmatic machines after having filled them out, and the machines will be left to automatically process and tally the entries on the sheet.

However, although the electoral process in the Philippines is undergoing progressive technological changes, there’s one thing that won’t change: the key responsibility that will fall into the hands of the tens of thousands of teachers who will be serving on the Board of Election Inspectors (BEI).

These teachers are the people who were tasked with safeguarding the ballots during these moments in our socio-political history; they, along with members of watchdog organizations like the PPCRV and NAMFREL, who painstakingly watch and protect the people’s ballots election after election. This year, our teachers and watchdogs will be doing it again, with an additional challenge: learning their way around the Smartmatic system.


TWO ELECTION VETERANS

Two elementary teachers who participated in the ballot-watching during the national elections in 2004 are Teresita Africa and Leticia Aguirre, who both shared their memorable experiences from the elections, information on how the voting and tallying process was carried out, and insights into what keeping the sanctity of the ballot entails with Female Network.

Teresita Africa, who lives in Lipa, Batangas, taught Reading and Language at the Lipa City South Central School from 1948 to 1993. She also worked as an assistant to the principal of the school.

Leticia Aguirre, on the other hand, has taught at the Balara Elementary School in Barangay Pansol, Quezon City for 18 years.

Both teachers gave very similar stories about the electoral process, characterizing it as a painstaking but emotionally fulfilling endeavor.


LONG HOURS AND HARD WORK

Public school teachers do not volunteer to be on the BEI. By virtue of their occupation, they are required to participate in this socially relevant enterprise.

Africa explains that each precinct has a Board of Inspectors that makes sure the elections run smoothly and nobody attempts to cause trouble or commit fraudulent acts that may prejudice the outcome of the elections. This Board of Inspectors is comprised of a chairman, who oversees the affairs in the precinct and decides on all issues concerning the same; a poll clerk, who makes the tally of the votes, and a third member, who hands out the ballots to the voters and assists the two aforementioned officials. All the teachers are likewise tasked to closely observe the voters who arrive at the precinct to cast their ballots.


Guarding the Ballots

For these teachers, duties during the elections start very early in the day. “The precincts open at 7:00 in the morning, and by that time, everything must have already been prepared—the ballots, the boxes [and] where they will be placed, the list of registered voters for that precinct, to name a few,” Africa recounts.

“The ballots will then be given to the voters for them to fill out. This will continue throughout the day until 3:00 in the afternoon. At three, the voters who haven’t finished accomplishing their ballots, as well as those last-minute voters who come to the precinct, will be given enough time to finish voting.”

Africa and Aguirre both recounted occasions in which people who came into the precinct to cast their ballots could not find their names on the list of registered voters, giving rise to a lot of complaints and confusion. There were also instances in which certain mischief-makers attempted to hide or steal the ballot boxes or to cast their votes in one precinct even after they had already cast their votes in another. These situations cause added stress to the teachers officiating in the precinct.


The Tough and Tedious Task of Tallying

After the voting closes in a precinct, the harder task begins: the counting of votes. With the Smartmatic machines, it is hoped that this task will be easier this year. Before automation was an option, though, one teacher would be appointed to read the names indicated on each ballot, while the poll clerk would mark the tally on a blackboard or on manila paper.

“The tallying [could] last for hours, going on until way past midnight. It’s tiring, especially since we don’t have any lunch or coffee breaks during the day,” Aguirre shares.

Africa, on the other hand, says that she was barely able to sleep during the last elections, as the BEIs in her precinct didn’t get to finish up until 2:00 in the morning.

The tallying of the last couple of ballots signals the close of the teachers’ precarious task. After the ballots are counted, they are sealed in the ballot boxes along with the voter’s books (where the names of the voters are recorded), the results of the tally, and other pertinent documents. The boxes are then left at the municipal hall.

Watching the election ballots is not only physically draining for most of the teachers, but it is a process that entails utmost caution against certain threats and complications.


WORTHY WORK

A question about whether or not they enjoyed watching the ballots during the elections was met with meaningful, good-natured laughter from both teachers.

“Well, it was very tiring, and I couldn’t help but feel hungry throughout all the time I was working,” Africa says candidly.

Aguirre concurs, saying, “It is a job that requires an immense amount of patience.”

Nevertheless, in spite of the tedious process of watching ballots, it was a personally gratifying experience for both of them, simply because they were able to perform a great service for their countrymen.

“The vote of each person matters and is considered sacred. We are required to be very vigilant and careful when watching the ballots, because it’s the people’s votes and the people’s choices that we’re trying to protect,” says Africa.

Teachers like Africa and Aguirre are indeed commendable heroes of our time, for their lives are not only dedicated to imparting wisdom and education in the classrooms, but to guarding the sanctity of the electoral process and, consequently, the very essence of democracy in our country.


(Photo by Rama via Wikimedia Commons, Cc-by-sa-2.0-fr)

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