Electoral events, from voter registration to election campaigns, up to the casting of votes at the polling places, are natural crowd drawers. The 2022 elections are expected to generate a high level of public interest and enthusiasm because the presidency is at stake and the incumbent administration is controversy-laden.
The high level of public interest and excitement, however, will be tempered by apprehensions on the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic on the elections. Concerns that the pandemic will turn away voters for fear of infection are valid and understandable.
The Commission on Elections (Comelec) assured the public that it is going to adopt measures that will make the election safe for the voting public and the candidates, as well as for the hundreds of thousands of election workers. However, it will be extra difficult especially for those from the sectors that are more vulnerable to disenfranchisement because of their unique circumstances. These sectors include those of persons with disabilities (PWDs), older persons or senior citizens, indigenous peoples (IPs) or ethnic minorities, persons deprived of liberty (PDLs) or detention inmates, internally displaced persons or IDPs, overseas Filipinos, the so-called illiterates, and other marginalized groups.
The pandemic threatens to set back the gains achieved by the Comelec, which has adopted measures over the last decade to improve the electoral access of those from vulnerable sectors.
Experts from the International Foundation for Electoral Systems or IFES, have warned that the “COVID19 pandemic has heightened inequalities among traditionally marginalized groups” and these exacerbate “existing barriers or create new barriers or create new challenges to equal participation in political life.”
The imperative of addressing the adverse impact of the pandemic on the electoral rights of those from the vulnerable population is clear and unquestionable.
Achievements before the pandemic
The advocacy for a more inclusive electoral environment gained steam in 2008 when advocates for electoral reforms collaborated with human rights advocates to push for better access by all to electoral processes and resources. The advocacy became stronger as key government officials were among those at the forefront. Rene Sarmiento, a human rights lawyer, was a commissioner of Comelec, and Leila de Lima, an election lawyer, was the chairperson of the Commission on Human Rights (CHR). In collaboration with CHR and other institutions and organizations both from the public and private sector, Comelec adopted policies that provided better access to PWDs and senior citizens, PDLs or detainees, and IPs.
There have been more satellite or offsite voter registrations in shopping malls exclusively for PWDs and senior citizens. There were designated days for registration exclusively for these sectors at the various Comelec field offices. Registrations were accepted in jail facilities to allow inmates or PDLs who are qualified to vote to register, reactivate or transfer their registrations. These activities were also conducted in remote IP communities.
PWDs and senior citizens
Comelec also established non-territorial voting precincts exclusively for PWDs and senior citizens. Each exclusive precinct is assigned an accessible polling place where PWDs and senior citizens can vote separately, which became possible with the enactment of Republic Act No. (RA) 10366. Apart from authorizing the establishment of a separate non-territorial precinct for PWDs and senior citizens in every voting center, RA 10366 also directs the Comelec to ensure reasonable accommodation to PWDs and Senior Citizens by designing ballots and crafting procedures that will allow them to accomplish ballots by themselves or otherwise ensure their right to ballot secrecy.
Comelec was also directed to allow the PWDs to update their voter registration information so that their specific disabilities are reflected on their registration records. This provided Comelec the data necessary to plan and design procedures and forms appropriate to each disability. For those who may not have listed themselves as PWDs but go to the voting centers to vote, Emergency Accessible Polling Places (EAPPs) will be established to allow them to cast their votes in an accessible area.
It is noteworthy however that the foregoing innovations merely address the problem of physical access,but not the access issues of those with other disabilities than mobility impairment. Nevertheless, while these initiatives are surely still inadequate, the opportunity for further improvement is bright, especially as Comelec continues to work with Disabled Persons’ Organizations (DPOs), other inclusion advocates, and the National Council for Disability Affairs (NCDA), the government agency that addresses PWD issues.
PDLs and IPs
Ensuring that PDLs or detainee voters can exercise their right to vote has also been pursued since its pilot implementation in 2010. Before the 2013 elections, which was when PDL voting was first implemented nationwide, PDLs could vote only if they could secure a court order allowing them a furlough so that they could go to their assigned polling places. The PDL voting initiative of Comelec allowed PDL voters to vote in jail facilities where they are committed as long as there are at least 50 of them who are qualified to vote in the municipality where the facility is. For jail facilities with less than 50 voters, escorted voting is available to those with the aforestated court order.
In the implementation of this project, Comelec worked with the CHR, the Bureau of Jail Management and Penology (BJMP), and the Bureau of Prisons, as well as civil society organizations (CSOs) advocating for PDL rights. Because of a temporary restraining order (TRO) issued by the Supreme Court in 2015, however, PDL voters can only vote for national positions.
Special voting processes for IPs were also institutionalized. Since 2016, when the Comelec IP Voting project was pilot-tested in the two Mindoro provinces, some IP groups have gained better access to voting processes. Accessible Voting Centers (AVC) and Special Polling Places (SPPs) were opened. AVCs are voting centers established in remote IP communities to bring voting activities nearer to where the IP voters are. SPPs, on the other hand, are polling places exclusively for IPs established in regular voting centers. SPPs address the problem of discrimination that IPs face when they vote in regular voting centers.
From two provinces in 2016, 29 municipalities in seven provinces were covered by the IP voting project in 2019. By 2022, it is expected that the project will further be expanded to cover more IP communities. The IP voting project involved the CHR and CSOs led by the Legal Network for Truthful Elections or Lente, which provided the necessary ground documentation work, in coordination with local election officers, necessary for the establishment of AVCs and SPPs.
Comelec has continued in its effort to mainstream and institutionalize its vulnerable sector electoral access initiatives. In 2014, the Comelec and CHR undertook a joint project to provide sensitivity training to key head office and field officials of Comelec on how best to engage those from the vulnerable sectors. Later, sensitivity training was made part of the plans and designs for the series of regular training of election workers.
There was also a COMELEC project intended to audit the compliance of public school structures used by voters with the accessibility law. The project involved the NCDA, the Department of Education, the Department of Public Works and Highways, the Department of the Interior and Local Government, and those from the private sector such as the United Architects of the Philippines and various CSOs.
In relation to campaigns and voter education during the 2019 elections, political advertisements on television were required to have sign language interpreters.
Rigid laws need to be amended to give Comelec more flexibility
While the efforts of Comelec and its partner institutions in the last decade can be considered unprecedented and groundbreaking, these have so far only covered or benefitted a small percentage of the total target vulnerable population.
Primarily, this is because the dominant paradigm or framework in organizing and conducting elections in the Philippines still does not give priority to inclusion as much as it does to efficiency and securing the electoral process from fraud. This is not to say that efficiency and security are not important. They are, but inclusion should be given equal,if not more attention, because elections are precisely about citizens exercising their power as sovereigns. The right to suffrage should be equal and universal, which simply means that no portion of the population must be denied access to democratic and electoral processes.
The election legal framework must be reformed and improved by allowing Comelec a certain degree of flexibility so that it can have sufficient authority to adapt to a situation like the pandemic, without having to go again to Congress to propose amendments in addressing contingencies.
Except for the provisions on assistors for PWDs and illiterates and until the enactment of RA 10366, there was nothing in our election laws that took into consideration the specific circumstances of those from the vulnerable sectors. The procedures provided in the statutes on voter registration and voting are generally rigid and too specific, that they do not give election administrators sufficient legal authority to innovate and adjust to prevailing circumstances when voting rights are threatened.
For instance under RA 8189 or the Voter Registration Act of 1996, voter registration transactions are required to take place in person before the election officer at the Comelec office of the city or municipality where the voter is registered. It was only in the mid-2000s that the Comelec came up with the concept of establishing temporary “satellite” offices in places that are more accessible to voters, just to conform with the law. The enactment of RA 10367, which requires every registered voter to supply their biometrics data to Comelec, in-person transactions can no longer be avoided, at least until Comelec adopts a technology that can collect biometrics data remotely. This is why remote or online registration cannot be implemented during this pandemic.
On voting, the Omnibus Election Code (OEC), by default, requires voters to vote only at designated classrooms in public schools, some of which are multilevel and are therefore inaccessible especially to those with mobility impairment. Early voting is limited to the police, military, and those who will discharge their election responsibilities and to members of the media covering elections. Overseas Filipinos can only register before Philippine missions abroad, and except where mail voting is allowed, voting is required to be in person. Moreover, local and overseas voters can only vote for national candidates.
The automated election laws, RA 8436 (1997), as amended by RA 9369 , could have been an opportunity to design a voting process that is accessible to PWDs. Section 6 of the law requires, at a minimum, that the system the Comelec will choose should be accessible to “illiterates and disabled voters.” Notwithstanding this law and RA 10366, technology has not removed existing barriers that PWDs experience when they exercise their electoral rights.
Even Comelec’s policies in running automated elections are fixed within a design that does not allow much flexibility, which is necessary during this pandemic to enable some from the vulnerable population to vote. The purpose of allocating specific ballots to a specific polling place, as well as requiring that all ballots be scanned and counted by the VCMs with the vote count electronically transmitted to the canvassing boards, is to secure the integrity of the election result. However, this also prevents Comelec from adjusting its procedures to address contingencies that would deprive those from vulnerable sectors of their right to vote. A procedure that would allow voting in hospitals where sick voters are confined cannot be adopted, for example, because the system does not allow it. One can never know if he will need to go to the hospital more than six months before. The decision to advance the deadline for registration of voters and the filing of the certificates of candidacy months ahead of the deadlines provided by law may disenfranchise some voters, but is understandably made due to the need to give time to prepare for the selected automated election process.
There have also been questions on why Comelec, with all the technology available, cannot adopt alternative procedures for voter registration and voting, and insists on in-person interactions with electoral workers. More than 137 countries and territories around the world proceeded with their elections despite the Covid-19 pandemic and some of them, notably South Korea in April 2020 and the United States in November 2020, even registered higher voter turnouts than expected. The reason for the high turnout was the expansion of their early voting and mail voting systems and their adoption of other special voting arrangements (SVAs) precisely to limit in-person interactions. This gave voters the confidence that they would be safe when they vote. Other countries allow mobile polling stations, which may be ideal in communities that are in protective quarantine.
The Philippines cannot avail itself of these alternative voting procedures because of limitations under existing laws. There were bills filed in 2020 to allow online registration and early voting at least for PWDs and senior citizens. These bills remain pending to this day.
In any case, a paradigm shift must be embraced by policymakers in Congress and the election administrators in Comelec, from that which looks at efficiency and speed as the primary indicator of a successful election to that which sees how inclusive and accessible the election was even to the vulnerable population. We should not be contented with how advanced the technology we used in elections was, nor should we be contented with how quickly we could proclaim the winners. We have to make sure that as many qualified voters could vote freely, notwithstanding the barriers they might have.
Vulnerable Sector Office
Just before the pandemic, in January 2020, the Comelec established the Vulnerable Sector Office (VSO) to ensure that the poll body’s inclusion activities graduate from being treated as special projects to being institutionalized activities and indispensable parts of the regular business of Comelec.
The Covid-19 pandemic adversely affected the progress of Comelec’s initiatives, however. The mobility restrictions have prevented the undertaking of accessibility projects with the same vigor of the past. According to the VSO, it was not able to organize as many satellite registration activities as planned because of the restrictions and requirements due to the pandemic.
For instance, the VSO was not able to conduct satellite registrations in jail facilities because of the stringent but understandable requirement of a negative RT-PCR test result for those who would be conducting the registration. The documentation necessary to establish additional AVCs and SPPs out of the existing precinct configurations has become extra challenging.
Likewise, the opportunity to expand the coverage of these projects to include IDPs may have been lost. This is unfortunate as clearly, the problems of the IDPs extend to their being disenfranchised as a result of their displacement from the places where they are registered as voters and transfer to a place where they technically cannot vote. More importantly, with the pandemic, the sector of the sick must be included among the vulnerable groups whose electoral rights must be ensured and protected.
We can trust the Comelec VSO to work as much as it can to maintain the gains from the last decade amid the pandemic, but its challenges will only continue. Given the limitations of existing laws, we hope that the new office can think of innovations it can adopt for the 2022 elections. END
Former Comelec Commissioner Luie Tito F. Guia served the poll body from April 2013 to February 2020. He had since co-founded the Democratic Insights Group, Inc, a non-profit organization promoting voter-centered approaches to elections.
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