“I actually started as a volunteer in June 2016,” he shares, going back to when he first set his sights on the commission he now leads. The University was having its annual Recruitment Week, and the familiar booths and stalls lined the SJ Walk once again. Lost in the frenzy of recruiters, he almost missed the tablet. “Nagdalawang-isip pa ako,” he says, “naglakad pa ako palayo.” But once he found what he was looking for, he came back—and it was at this moment that John Christian Ababan joined the DLSU Commission on Elections (Comelec).
(I was having second thoughts. I even walked away.)
For many, Ababan may not be as prominent as the candidates or political parties that he oversees during the hectic weeks of student elections. But his commanding role in organizing these events and the years of experience he has under his belt have taught him skills, prudence, and an affinity for objectivity that he has put to good use in serving the DLSU studentry.
Starting from the bottom
As head of the commission, Ababan is in charge of organizing the entirety of the elections—a logistical task that spans weeks—beginning from the filing of candidacies and ending with the announcement of winners. This means ensuring that venues are booked, ballots are printed, polling booths are supervised round the clock, and of course, that the overall event runs as smoothly as possible.
But before he became Chairperson, Ababan, like most student leaders, began his career as a regular member of the poll body. His time as a volunteer gave him hands-on experience in the commission’s work, from manning polling booths to canvassing ballots.
It was also here that he first realized how challenging the legwork was and how grueling the voting period can be. “Nung first-time volunteer ako, I was overwhelmed during break time,” he narrates, “[students] use that to vote so parang sobrang haba nung lines sa polling booth and we’re always overwhelmed…lalo na ‘pag kulang ‘yung volunteers.”
(Especially when we lack volunteers.)
These experiences as a volunteer would inform his decisions when he took on higher roles, and he would try to recruit more volunteers to compensate for manpower needs in later elections.
Though Ababan is grateful for his long stay in the commission, it would be a mistake to call his five years of service a walk in the park. “We expect the unexpected,” he confesses, “we do realize that in every election, there’s always a new controversy.” And despite coming armed with this mindset, a couple of hiccups still manage to catch him off guard.
One standout memory was the hectic days that led up to the announcement of candidates for General Elections 2018, during which Comelec was left with no choice but to disqualify an entire political party. “We spent six hours going back and forth,” he recalls. “‘Yun ‘yung first time na nag-stay ako sa La Salle nang [hanggang] 12 midnight.”
(That was the first time I stayed in La Salle until 12 midnight.)
As challenging as the disqualification may have been, Ababan states that they at least were in a “familiar environment.” Now, however, Comelec has had to take a sharp turn, moving toward online elections, which for them is uncharted territory. “It’s a whole lot different,” he adds, “it’s already difficult on our end, and also on the parties’ end.”
In addition, there still stands Comelec’s longtime adversary—voter turnout. For the past few years, the voter participation rate has hovered around 50 percent, struggling to rise above 60. And now that Comelec has to adapt online, he can’t help but be concerned about the turnout in the upcoming elections.
Now in what he hopes to be his last year and after having an unmistakable imprint on the commission, what does Ababan want to be best remembered for? “I don’t think the online election will be my legacy,” he humbly admits, acknowledging that the transition to automated voting was conceived by his predecessors, namely former Comelec Vice Chairperson Troy Mirafuentes, and had been in the pipeline for quite some time. Prolonged quarantine measures only hastened its long overdue implementation.
Instead, Ababan sees himself as a “document-type” of person, lending most of his efforts to crafting and revising Comelec’s various rules and guidelines. In past Legislative Assembly sessions, representatives—along with Ababan himself—made major revisions to the Online Election Code, which outlines the overall guidelines for the entire election process, and the Comelec Rules of Court, which provides details on processing electoral complaints.
Ababan also highlights how he has included new requirements for political parties to disclose their campaign expenses for transparency purposes, noting that most students are unaware that parties do not have spending limits.
“‘Yun ‘yung gusto kong maging legacy,” he stresses, “‘yung pag-reorganize nung documents that Comelec uses and also…laying out additional guidance.”
(That is what I want my legacy to be—the reorganization of documents that Comelec uses and also…laying out additional guidance.)
But perhaps his long tenure alone is worth remembering. “‘Yung tumagal sa Comelec, ‘yun na rin ‘yung legacy ko,” he jokes.
(Having stayed in Comelec for so long, that’s also my legacy.)
For the future
Ababan has always taken Comelec’s guiding principles to heart, believing that they cannot coerce or force students to vote but instead only offer encouragement. Although he asserts that Comelec is far from being a mere passive observer in the grand scheme of the elections, he fervently hopes that students know just how much power their votes hold.
“At the end of the day, it’s the elections, it will be their choice, it will be their vote, and it will be their future,” he emphasizes. As the leader of the commission, he may play a significant role in overseeing the selection of the next student leaders, but he knows full well that the students are the main actors in what comes after. And for as long as he sits as chair, Ababan shall make sure Comelec reminds Lasallians that “it’s their responsibility to make sure that these elected officers do what they promised.”