By Atty. Howie Calleja
There is much to be said about our electoral process, especially since many of us have seen its highs and lows; from hard-won victories that restored democracy – to the rise of traditional politics (or “trapo”), the confidence in elections (and our duly elected leaders) hasn’t exactly been stagnant. In building trust in our elections, people often talk about “voter education.” Many proposals have come and gone to promote voter education in high school and college, to help the youth, in particular, understand the role that civic engagement plays in our democracy. These proposals tend to only go as far as encouraging the electorate to exercise their right of suffrage, enumerate the requirements of registering to vote, and provide details on how to assist in monitoring the election process. But, should voter education include such limited coverage?
While of course the aforementioned aspects of voter education is essential, I must make the case that we expand the coverage: aiming instead for voter empowerment. If our goal to achieve good governance in all democratic offices is to be reached, we must all do our part in promoting informed and vigilant voting. While encouraging citizen participation (especially engaging the youth to be a part of the decision-making process) is essential, the core of voter empowerment should be responsive to the needs of the electorate. Voter education that is responsive to the issues that matter to the masses must include basic research skills, whether that be through a digital platform or sifting through campaign materials at their barangay halls, and how to critically review a candidate’s platform. Education becomes empowerment when certain skills are taught that can go beyond a single election cycle, instead leading to a new generation of informed voters.
The ability to critically review a candidate’s platform need not be a skill limited to the academe, nor those with an intense familiarity with the government or its laws, it can be easily taught. By teaching the electorate to prioritize the issues that matter the most to them, and teach them how to access materials that can help compare the various candidates’ stance on them, they can select who they believe best fits the bill. Whether the issues be education, national security, gender rights, or religion, this can be approached in an impartial and non-partisan manner. Though I personally do not agree with single-issue voters, this is still a legitimate manner of voting and even single-issue voters should have the ability to access all the facts.
Campaigns to promote informed voting should also include teaching the electorate how to access materials and news items that show their candidate’s previous voting record as a legislator, their campaign expenditures, and past fulfillment (or lack thereof) of campaign promises. Informed voters are essential to prevent the continuation of the cycle of violation of campaign fund regulations and even vote-buying. Such practices not only undermine our entire electoral process, but also contribute to continued corruption in our government. Voters who are both vigilant and informed can be the catalyst that compels transparency from candidates in the next election cycle.
Empowered voters also know that the exercise of their right of suffrage directly fuels our democracy towards maturity. For example, they can see how transparency can directly affect their lives: Pasig Mayor Vico Sotto made headlines last year from declaring he saved P150 million just from reforming his city’s procurement process to have transparency at its center. Considering his city’s efforts during the pandemic to make gadgets accessible and promote safe traveling options for frontliners, it seems that money is, indeed, going back to the people. The power to vote in leaders should come with the responsibility to be critical. Hopefully, voter empowerment will encourage us to look beyond the band-aid solutions and look at leaders who truly are in service of the people. One way to do so is to look at our current political, social, and economic issues and pick leaders whose campaign platforms best reflect the potential to achieve the best future for the next generation. It is true that the ongoing pandemic has gone on a long way in shaping our image of politicians, but what about the possibility of another pandemic? Have your local leaders shown empathy, responsiveness, accountability, and transparency? Or did they give you a bag of rice and call it a day?
This is why voter education cannot rely solely on publication materials on how to register with COMELEC, nor place our hope on the youth, though both are important. Fundamental to voter education is encouraging the average Filipino to vote according to his conscience, whatever it may tell him. Instead of exclusively disseminating information on how to vote, let us empower the electorate by reinforcing the pillars of good governance as a cornerstone of effective leadership.