VIRTUAL GUIDE FOR VOTERS

MANILA, May 10, 2004 (STAR) By Nelson De Guzman  -  With just three days away, the nation begins its process of choosing its leaders as more than 43 million Filipinos will be trooping to polling precincts on Monday to cast their votes.

The process is cumbersome, if not discouraging, particularly for first-time voters who have to look for their names among the thousands listed in polling precincts.

One may think he is a registered voter in a particular precinct only to discover that his name is missing, or grossly misspelled.

Juan de la Cruz may lose his enthusiasm before the end of the day and go home. He gets simply frustrated and discouraged just by the initial step of looking for his name, only to learn that he has been "disenfranchised" after queuing for hours waiting for his turn.

If only Juan had the information beforehand on where to go, he would have proceeded directly to his assigned polling precinct without necessarily sifting through the thick pad of thumbed-torn voters’ list under the heat of the summer sun.

Our poll officials concede that disenfranchisement – those missing, misplaced and misspelled names of voters, oddly including those of candidates themselves – is the most common and irritable complaint in every electoral exercise.

A number of votes are simply lost because frustrated voters opt to go home after failing to find their polling precincts to cast their ballots.

Common and irritable as it is, the Commission on Elections (Comelec) took note of the growing clamor to use technology to replace the antiquated and fraud-prone electoral system.

Even after suffering a setback in the Supreme Court ruling last Jan. 13 declaring its contract on automated counting machines illegal, the Comelec went on in its resolve to modernize the electoral system – one step at a time.

It was a good thing that the Comelec thought of tapping the assistance of private organizations to guide voters online.

Juan de la Cruz may find some comfort in the fact that the Internet can help him virtually locate his polling precinct, thus saving himself from the frustrating fruitless search on Election Day.

Precinct In Seconds

By logging on to www.-findprecinct.com, Juan de la Cruz can find out in seconds where exactly he has to go to cast his vote on Monday.

Given the fact that there are millions of Filipinos who do not have Internet access, findprecinct.com is still a step in the right direction. A project of the Comelec, the website was put up precisely to help voters find their precincts as fast as possible and help reduce voter disenfranchisement.

The project was conceived with the help of the Parish Pastoral Council for Responsible Voting (PPCRV), www.mapCentral.ph and CyberSoft Integrated Geoin-formatics Inc.

According to OneHundred Services Inc., the project’s host, the website has generated 430,000 hits since it was launched last April 25.

Findprecinct.com offers a registered voter the exact location of his or her polling precinct, complete with a detailed map, landmarks and even a picture of the precinct.

All the registered voter has to do is type in his first name, family name and middle name, as well as the date and year of his or her birth – and "submit" with a click of the mouse.

In seconds, the voter has the vital information he or she needs – the location and number of his or her polling precinct.

Map Central took the initiative of putting out its collection of digitalized maps and interfaced them with the Comelec’s computerized voters’ list.

A voter, meanwhile, can also learn within seconds where to vote by using his or her cellphone through "texting," a convenience for those unable to access the Internet. The Comelec has put out advertisements in major dailies on how to use this.

The voter just keys in findp <space> last name <comma> first name <comma> middle name or initial <comma> birth date (mm-dd-yy), then send to 2958 for Globe subscribers or 211 for Smart users. For Sun Cellular subscribers, just click on the Mall or text findp to 2300 and key in the same instructions.

There were also plans to set up call centers where voters could verify their exact precinct assignments. Arrangements were being made with several Internet cafés and computer shops which would set aside computer units for voters who wish to locate their polling precincts for free.

During its initial stages, website catered only to registered voters in Metro Manila.

More Cities

Omar Mendoza, president and chief executive officer of Cybersoft Integrated GeoInformatics Inc., one of the firms which helped launched the website, said more major cities across the country will be covered before Election Day.

The Comelec, for its part, said findprecinct.com also serves as a means of validating and cleansing the voters’ list. The site helps poll officials identify and remove multiple registrants.

In case a voter’s name appears in more than one precinct, a notice is found on the site, telling the voter to contact the election officer in his or her district through the telephone number found on the site.

These laudable efforts, however, are not without the usual critics. Some people, particularly those in the information technology sector, claimed that the Comelec, by way of findprecinct.com, was simply making up for the legal setback it suffered from the Supreme Court decision. The poll body had to revert to manual counting after the tribunal ruled that the contract to computerize the counting of ballots was illegal.

Information technology experts also noted the fact that the website was launched barely days away from Election Day. They argued that findprecinct.com should have been launched months ago so voters could report to the Comelec any wrong data posted on the site in line with its objective of purging double registrants and deceased voters.

Critics also noted that the poll body was given three years to work on the full automation of the 2001 elections since the enactment of Republic Act 8436, otherwise known as the Election Automation Law. Three years have passed and up to now, simple problems like missing names and missing precincts in many polling areas across the country still crop up.

Like any Third World country, the Philippines is nowhere when it comes to modernizing the selection of its leaders. But, at least, findprecinct.com is a step in the right direction to free Juan de la Cruz of the hassles of plodding through a crowd of similarly confused voters, to exercise his right of suffrage.


Reported by: Sol Jose Vanzi

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