ON DISTANT SHORE: Disenfranchising overseas voters

OVERSEAS voting was scheduled to start last Sunday, April 10, in Philippine embassies and consulates all over the world. Unfortunately, only a few foreign posts were able to start in-person voting mainly because of the continued threat of Covid-19 and the delays in the printing, and delivery of ballots and the voting counting machines (VCMs).

It is important to note that this is the first Philippine national election to be held since the pandemic began spreading in the first quarter of 2020, the last having been held in March 2019. The previous overseas elections were generally conducted smoothly, although voter turnout has always been low compared to the number of registered voters.

Since overseas absentee voting was allowed in 2004 under the Overseas Absentee Voting Act of 2003, overseas Filipinos registering to vote in the country’s national elections have continued to rise, from 359,296 registered overseas voters in 2004 presidential elections to a peak of 1,822,115 in the 2019 senatorial elections, indicating an interest to participate in the elections. In this year’s presidential elections, more than 1.679 million overseas Filipinos have registered to vote.

Except for the 2004 presidential elections – the first for overseas Filipino voters – where 64.89% of registered voters cast in their ballots, the next five national elections had way less than 50% voter turnout.

In the 2007 senatorial elections, only 81,732 or 16.21% of the 504,124 registered voters cast their vote. In the 2010 presidential elections, only 153,323 or 25.99% of the 589,830 registered voters cast their ballots. In the 2013 senatorial elections, only 118,823 or 16.11% of the 737,759 registered voters turned out to vote. In the 2016 presidential elections, only 432,706 or 31.45% of the 1,376.067 voters actually cast their voters, and in the 2019 senatorial elections, only 336,549 or 18.47% of the 1,822,115 overseas voters cast their ballots.

This year, the Commission on Elections is targeting an improbable 80% turnout. With the printing and delivery delays, plus the physical limitations imposed by the still ongoing pandemic, the Comelec would be lucky to even come close to a 50% turnout.

The Comelec has offered more options to vote in the May 9 presidential elections in an effort to reach the 80% goal.

The poll body said it has passed a resolution formalizing the “vote anywhere” scheme for overseas Filipinos.

“If you are a registered overseas voter in Singapore, but on election period, you happen to be in another post, for example, you are in Hong Kong, all you have to do is to file a manifest intent to vote in that post even if you are not registered in Hong Kong, as long as you are a registered overseas voter,” Comelec Commissioner Marlon Casquejo said in a press briefing.

One area of concern here is that many overseas workers returned home during the pandemic and are probably staying in the country until after the May 9 elections. If they failed to register in their hometowns or cities, can they vote under the “vote anywhere” scheme?

Another concern is in areas where only in-person voting is allowed, such as in Dubai, where many overseas voters live hours away from the nearest consulate and can’t possibly just leave their work without the consent of their employers.

Similar problem is anticipated in Hongkong, which has one of the highest numbers of registered overseas voters. The poll body has already put up five voting precincts to try to accommodate all of them, but obviously it was not enough as the consulate had to tell some of them to vote another day because the police were worried about the Covid virus spreading among the crowded voters. The cause of the problem apparently is that many of these voters are domestic workers whose only day-off is on Sundays, resulting in the overflow on opening day of voting last Sunday.

There are two modes of voting for overseas Filipinos – one, they appear in person; two, they vote via mail. Out of the 92 posts or consular offices worldwide, 24 will fully employ the personal voting mode, 52 will use a postal voting method, and the rest will mix both schemes.

Unfortunately for us here in the United States, there is no available in-person voting and we can only vote by mail. The consulates have promised to mail this week the mail-in ballots to the registered voters using their addresses when they last registered for absentee voting.

The main area of concern here is that many voters have changed address since the time they registered. The consulate advises them to file a forwarding address request with the USPS so the ballots would be sent to their new addresses.

The problem, however, is that forwarding address notification is valid only for one year from the date of filing. If you registered in 2016, that means your forwarding notification expired in 2017. One person I know sent his new address to the consulate because the USPS wouldn’t entertain such notification anymore, but the person there said they couldn’t change the address contained in the Comelec list and that the voter has to inform the USPS to forward the mail from the Consulate General to the new address.

But the Comelec in Manila says such voters should inform the embassy or the consulate of their new address to ensure the ballots would reach them. Here’s the direct quote from Commissioner Cosquejo:

“Maybe an overseas voter thought of changing addresses even in the same country. They have to inform the embassy (underscoring ours) because otherwise, the ballot [mailed to them] will be returned. That’s the issue why posts have many ‘return to sender’ cases,” Casquejo explained.

Under these circumstances, there is a great possibility that many ballots won’t find their way to the voters, and result in the disenfranchisement of these voters. With no other way in the US to exercise the right of suffrage embodied in the Overseas Absentee Voting Act of 2003 but via mail-in ballots, many similarly situated voters would not be able to vote for the next leaders who will guide our country in the next six years.

There is still time for Comelec to address these problems and enable it to attain even a 50% voter turnout, which although still a far cry from the 80% target is a big improvement over recent voter turnouts.

The coming election is one of the most crucial political exercise the country will ever have because of the many problems that the Duterte administration is leaving, including the trillions of debts that it has incurred, the slowing economy, the nagging problems of poverty and corruption, and the obvious mishandling of the Covid-19 pandemic.

The Oversees Absentee Voting Act of 2003 was enacted precisely to give every eligible Filipino voter – whether they are in the homeland or toiling overseas –  to exercise their right to choose the country’s leaders. Disenfranchising overseas Filipinos, who have been hailed as heroes for decades, for lack of vision and planning is a major sin.

The Comelec officials had all of three years from the last election to plan for this political exercise but apparently they have failed. They now have less than one month to address the concerns raised by overseas Filipinos. Can they do it?