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Jakarta Post

Spare a thought for the 7.2 million volunteers running polling stations

  • Endy Bayuni

    The Jakarta Post

Jakarta   /   Wed, April 10, 2019   /   04:51 pm
Spare a thought for the 7.2 million volunteers running polling stations Volunteers at polling station TPS 7 in Randusari subdistrict, South Semarang district, Semarang city, Central Java, dress up as ghouls during the Central Java gubernatorial election on June 27 last year. (JP/Suherdjoko)

General elections are almost always about candidates, political parties and their supporters, voters and the electoral officers. Rarely do people talk about the volunteers, ordinary citizens who devote their time and energy to make this important national political event a success.

These volunteers are almost invisible, but for the 2019 election on April 17 — billed as the biggest one-day election in the world — they exceed 7.2 million in number. They are the people who will be running the more than 800,000 polling stations across the nation. The General Elections Commission (KPU) has recruited nine people from local neighborhoods to manage each polling station, administer the votes and count the ballots.

Voting and the subsequent counting would not be possible without the help of these volunteers. A contrast can be made with India, which started its general elections this week. It will last the whole month, moving from state to state, and is conducted largely by civil servants.

Being on the front lines and facing voters directly, they face the consequences when things go wrong. Even before they begin their work, they have been accused of being biased or being on the payroll of political parties or candidates. Many have expressed their doubts over the competence of volunteers in running polling stations.

This has become politicians’ favorite strategy: attacking the credibility of the KPU and its volunteers by questioning the legitimacy of the electoral process and results.

Former Jakarta governor Basuki “TJP” Tjahaja Purnama blamed his failed bid for reelection in 2017 on alleged cheating led by polling stations volunteers.

For the upcoming election, a team representing one of the presidential candidates has allegedly instructed supporters to refuse results at polling stations that don’t go their way, to demand a recount and even create chaos.

This will be the second time that I will be volunteering to run a polling station in my neighborhood, the first one being the 2017 Jakarta gubernatorial election. I find these accusations against volunteers unfair; they are typically made by sore losers and reflects an ignorance of how we work.

For one, the volunteers running the polling stations have sworn to remain impartial. Secondly, the mechanism for voting and vote counting are very open and transparent. Each polling station is monitored by an electoral officer and witnesses sent by candidates and political parties. Rigging at polling stations is simply impossible.

These accusations are unappreciative of the time and energy we put in. We have to make sure that the people with the right to vote can do so, and that the vote counting afterward is done meticulously and openly. Every ballot cast — unused, spoilt and ruined — must be accounted for. And then there is the requirement to produce various reports, more than 70 copies, accurately.

And we are talking about five ballot boxes to count.

Unlike in 2014, when the presidential election was held three months after the legislative election, this year the two are held simultaneously. Voters will cast five ballots: one for president and vice president, for a member of the House of Representatives, a member of the Regional Representatives Council (DPD), a member of the provincial level council and a member of the regency/city-level council. In Jakarta, there is only a provincial-level council.

The KPU has made the job of volunteers easier by limiting the number of voters to no more than 300 for each polling station. Yet, a recent simulation conducted by the Corruption Eradication Commission (KPK) found that in many areas, vote counting could not be completed in one day.

The Constitutional Court (MK) has extended the deadline for polling stations to return ballot boxes and submit their reports to the election committee in their district to midday the next day.

Volunteers are bracing not only for a long day but possibly a long night too.

The work for volunteers began weeks before April 17. Some were already involved in registering voters as far back as a year ago.

Recruiting volunteers was quite a job in itself, with most people refusing to take part in this thankless job. There are meetings, including technical meetings, volunteers have to attend. Most volunteers have full-time jobs, so many struggled to attend these meetings.

Each polling station has to make its own logistic preparations, from renting a tent, chairs and tables, big boards, to preparing the food and drinks for election workers on April 17. We are given a budget which, unless you have a friend who owns a tent, hardly covers the costs of opening a decent polling station. We were told to dig into our own pockets to cover the difference.

Yes, each volunteer receives Rp 500,000 (US$35.30), but even motorcycle taxi drivers will tell you they make that for far fewer hours of work.

So, why are volunteers doing this?

The short right answer is: “For the honor of carrying out a state duty.”

The longer answer is: “Because someone has to do it — and there is no one else.”

It is not a difficult and complex job some people are making it out to be, but it is a job that requires dedication and one that has to be executed meticulously.

The election results, and thus Indonesia’s democracy to a large extent, hinges on the work of these volunteers. A little appreciation would be nice.

The writer is a polling station volunteer in South Jakarta.