What you need to know about the Maguindanao plebiscite

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Metro Manila (CNN Philippines, September 16) — Registered voters in Maguindanao will decide on Saturday, Sept. 17, if the province will be split into two independent ones.

The Commission on Elections (Comelec) on Thursday said all systems are in place for the plebiscite which will determine if the law signed by former president Rodrigo Duterte in 2021 — creating a Maguindanao del Norte and a Maguindanao del Sur — will be ratified.

CNN Philippines lists down what you need to know about the matter.

What's the basis of the plebiscite?

In May 2021, Duterte approved Republic Act No. 11550, dividing the province of Maguindanao, which is located in the Bangsamoro Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao. 

Under the law, Maguindanao del Norte and Maguindanao del Sur will have their own provincial governments.

Of the 36 municipalities, 12 will be part of Maguindanao del Norte — with the town of Datu Odin Sinsuat as its capital. The rest will be under Maguindanao del Sur — with Buluan as the seat of power.

Local officials said they are in favor of the division. They believe having separate governments with smaller areas of jurisdiction will help them focus better on addressing the needs of their constituents.

Before this split is officially enforced, however, the law states that the majority of registered voters in affected areas must give their approval through a plebiscite.

The referendum should've been conducted within 90 days of the law's effectivity — which was August 2021, at the latest — but the Comelec moved it to after the local and national elections last May.

Who can vote?

One must be a registered voter in Maguindanao to take part in the plebiscite. According to the Comelec, there are 818,790 registered voters in the province's 36 towns as of the May 9 polls.

While Cotabato City is geographically located in the province, the poll body clarified it is an independent component city and is therefore not part of the voting.

When and where to vote?

The plebiscite will run from 7 a.m. to 3 p.m. on Sept. 17. However, the Comelec said it will still accommodate voters within a 30-meter radius of the polling precincts by 3 p.m.

There are 467 voting centers, which are the same ones during the May elections, said the commission's acting spokesperson John Rex Laudiangco.

"Kung saan po kayong paaralan bumoto po nung nakaraang Mayo, practically doon din po kayo boboto. Yun lamang po siguro, may kaunting pagbabago sa presinto," he told CNN Philippines.

[Translation: The school where you voted last May will practically still be your assigned polling place for the plebiscite. Perhaps there may only be a slight change in the precinct.]

Those who still don't know their assigned voting precinct may request help through the Comelec's voters' assistance desks which should be put up in all polling sites, Laudiangco said.

How will the voting be done?

The Comelec's office for operations told CNN Philippines via phone call that voters should bring a valid ID since they will have to confirm their identity.

Unlike the automated May elections where there are vote-counting machines, the plebiscite will be conducted manually, Deputy Executive Director for Operations Teofisto Elnas Jr. explained in a media briefing.

He said the plebiscite question answerable by yes or no (or "oo o hindi") will be indicated in the ballot in both Filipino and Arabic languages.

How will authorities ensure voters' safety?

Comelec officials assured the public that the Philippine National Police (PNP) and the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) are ready to ensure the peaceful and orderly conduct of the plebiscite.

Laudiangco, on Friday evening, said no major threat has been monitored by security forces.

According to Elnas, close to 3,000 AFP personnel will help man voting centers, while Maguindanao Police Spokesperson PMaj. Regie Albellera said around 2,500 PNP personnel will be deployed.

On risks of catching COVID-19, Elnas said isolation polling places will be put up in case there are voters showing symptoms of the viral disease. He added physical distancing will be enforced in the voting sites.

When are the results expected?

The votes will also be counted manually, and Elnas said they are expecting municipal-level results to be out by around 10 p.m. on Saturday.

As it is already late, he said it is likely the ballots will be delivered early Sunday morning to the provincial board of canvassers.

The province-wide results are expected to be proclaimed by 7 p.m. or 8 p.m. on Sunday at the latest, the official added.