Mon, 26 May 2003

Vote registration officers must cope with uninformed public

Arya Abhiseka, The Jakarta Post, Jakarta

The number one problem for Harun, a voter registration volunteer, is locating the houses where he dropped off registration forms a week earlier.

It's not that he has a bad memory. But the houses are in the small and crowded alleyways of the Bukit Duri slum area near the Ciliwung River in East Jakarta. And the house numbers do not seem to help.

"House number eight does not necessarily stand next to house number nine. They are spread all over the area and I have to memorize them and find the houses one by one," Harun told The Jakarta Post on Thursday evening.

Harun, who works as a security guard during the day, is just one of many people from all walks of life who have volunteered to serve as field officers to register eligible voters for the 2004 elections.

Locating house numbers is only one of the many obstacles faced by Harun and the other volunteers.

Generally, he said, people are aware of the upcoming elections but are unaware of how it will work, the result of a poor public awareness campaign.

He said, as an example, that people were often unprepared to give him the information he required.

"It makes our job harder than it sounds, because we have to spend quite some time waiting for the residents to find the documents we need."

Yet he happily does the job, for which he is only paid Rp 500 for each person he registers.

"I calculated that I will make between Rp 300,000 (US$33) and Rp 400,000 from this job. A pretty good amount," Harun said.

The General Elections Commission (KPU), which is organizing the 2004 legislative elections, contracted the Central Statistics Agency (BPS) to conduct a simultaneous nationwide census and voter registration.

The BPS has trained and deployed some 230,000 field officers since April 1 of this year to begin registering people.

The process was due to be completed by April 30, but when the BPS failed to meet this deadline the KPU extended the deadline to May 15. But the registration process in Jakarta has been extended to November, as some 3 percent of the population has still not been registered.

The KPU set aside some Rp 407 billion (US$45.7 million) for the process. Despite the relatively high budget, the process often ran into difficulties, with reports of a lack of registration forms and field officers in several provinces. And as of today, the nationwide census and voter registration is still underway.

Though some people complain about a lack of public awareness about the registration process, the KPU claims to have budgeted some Rp 1.5 billion for a public awareness campaign, including public service announcements on television and radio.

However, these announcements have rarely found their way onto the air during peak hours.

The result of this rather lackluster public awareness campaign has been public misinformation and misinterpretation of whole election process.

Harun said the biggest problem he faced was when people refused to fill out voter registration forms because they were so disappointed with the whole political situation.

He said everyone, including foreigners, had to fill out the registration forms, regardless of whether they planned to vote in the elections or not, because the information would be used to create a single population database.

Harun also stressed the government's failure to create awareness that the registration process was part of the plan to provide citizens with registered identity numbers.

The identity numbers can be described as the equivalent to the Social Security numbers used in the United States, which is a single identity number that is used for various purposes, including obtaining an identification card, driver's license, marriage license, passport, visa and bank account.

Aminuddin, a registration officer in the upscale neighborhood of Menteng, Central Jakarta, said he also noticed a lack of public awareness about the registration process. Worse, he often had to navigate his way around guard dogs.

Another problem is that most of the residents are rarely at home so it is difficult to find them and register them, he said.

"I still have about 20 registration forms that have not been filled out or returned since last month," said Aminuddin.

The Central Statistic Agency told The Jakarta Post on Thursday that the voter registration process was proceeding smoothly, with about 98 percent of the country's 210 million residents already registered, with the exception of the provinces of Aceh and Papua.