Tens of thousands of Filipinos held in jail while awaiting trial are legally eligible to vote. But it is only in the last decade that they have been provided the means to exercise their right to suffrage. For years they had been excluded from participating in the democratic process because of structural barriers, from misinformation about their voting eligibility to lack of access to voter registration and casting a ballot.
For a long time, imprisonment in the Philippines meant de facto disenfranchisement for many voting-eligible Filipino PDLs.
This all changed in 2010 when Comelec initiated efforts to facilitate detainee voting and in 2012 by crafting rules that would guide the registration and voting of detainees for the May 2013 elections and beyond.
“May civil rights pa rin naman sila… kasi hindi pa sila nahahatulan ng kanilang sentensya sa kaso. Wala pa silang final decision sa case that provides (the) cancellation of their civil rights, which is part doon ang right to vote or right of suffrage,” said Sean Resureccion, an officer of the Commission on Elections (Comelec) Vulnerable Sector Office (VSO).
Resurreccion said PDLs are considered vulnerable because unlike the general voting public, they do not have the same access to voter education such as knowledge of their voting rights and information about who to vote for and how to vote.
Resureccion recalled how a group of children of persons deprived of liberty or PDLs once visited the VSO to seek redress. The cases of their parents have been languishing in court for 10 to 15 years, which meant that their mothers and fathers have also been held in jail for so long and missed the opportunity to participate in multiple election cycles. He said the children of the detainees were asking for their help so that their parents would be able to vote.
“What they usually think about is, ‘I am already in jail. I no longer have freedom.’ But they have to know that they still have the freedom to vote,” she said. “They’re still part of the society. They should not be removed from the maps of society.”
The 1987 Constitution provides that Filipinos “who are at least 18 years of age, and who shall have resided in the Philippines for at least one year and in the place wherein they propose to vote for at least six months immediately preceding the election,” have the right to vote.
The Omnibus Election Code, promulgated in 1985, meanwhile prohibits the following from participating in the polls:
- Those sentenced with “final judgment” to be imprisoned for not less than a year;
- Those who lost or renounced their citizenship; and
- Those found to be insane or incompetent as declared by competent authority.
Section 155 of the Omnibus Election Code likewise states that “no polling place shall be located within the perimeter of or inside a military or police camp or reservation or within a prison compound.”
This changed in 2010 when Comelec initiated efforts through Resolution No. 8811 to create a committee on detainee voting and establish special polling places in detention centers and jails. Comelec data show that 24,275 detainees were able to register while 17,210 were able to vote in the 2010 polls.
Then in 2012, the poll body issued Resolution No. 9371 that set out the rules and regulations on the registration and voting of detainees for the May 2013 elections and subsequent ones.
According to the resolution, the PDLs who are allowed to vote are the following:
- Those confined in jail, formally charged for any crime/s and awaiting/undergoing trial;
- Those serving sentence of imprisonment for less than one year;
- Those whose conviction is on appeal.
(A lawyer petitioned the Supreme Court to review Resolution No. 9371. In August 2022, the high court dismissed the petition thereby allowing detainees to participate in the elections.)
The process continued in the succeeding elections, reflecting an increase in voter registration and voter turnout among detainees.
For the May 2022 elections, the Comelec VSO coordinated with the Bureau of Jail Management and Penology to encourage detainees or those who have no final sentence yet and have ongoing cases to participate in the elections.
Resurreccion said satellite registration for PDLs used to take place in barangays only. But for the May 2022 elections, Comelec went directly to the jail facility. The poll body, she said, complemented voter registration with voter education.
“So habang nag-reregister ‘yung iba, may voter education… pinapaintindi natin bakit mahalaga (bumoto) (While some were registering to vote, others were getting voter education… we help then them understand why it is important to vote),” she said.
Voter registration for the May 2022 elections hit some snags as the Covid-19 pandemic hit in 2020. Registration was suspended several times. While voter registration was recorded at an all-time high for the recent elections, it’s difficult to assess the turnout for PDLs and compare it with previous years’ data because Comelec has no final tally yet for vulnerable sectors.
PCIJ has requested data from Comelec since June 2022, but the final tally for both voter registration and voter turnout for vulnerable sectors is still not available as of December 2022. Comelec VSO said they aim to release the final number for vulnerable sectors by end of the year.
As of September 2022, jail population data shows that of the 131,311 in jail, 90% or 117,954 have not been sentenced yet and are therefore eligible to vote.
PCIJ fellow Joel Mataro visited the Calamba City Jail in Laguna and the Tanauan City in Batangas on May 9, 2022. Here are scenes from that day.
Ballot secrecy folders were neatly placed on top of desks inside a special polling place for persons deprived of liberty (PDL) in Calamba City Jail in Laguna. Although a PDL is in jail, they are considered innocent and must be accorded the right to vote. Section 2, Rule 1 of Comelec Resolution No. 93171 states that PDLs who are confined in jail, formally charged for any crime/s and awaiting/undergoing trial or those serving sentences of imprisonment for less than one year or whose conviction is on appeal may be allowed to vote. (Photograph: Joel Mataro/PCIJ)
Members of the Special Electoral Board for PDLs, the body tasked to conduct and supervise voting inside a special polling place for PDLs, checked election forms, documents and supplies needed to facilitate the conduct of elections in Calamba City Jail in Laguna. Section 55 of Comelec Resolution No. 10768, which provides for the general instructions on the voting of PDLs, states that members of the Special Electoral Board shall receive an honorarium of P7,000 for its chairperson and P6,000 each for each poll clerk, member and supervisor. (Photograph: Joel Mataro/PCIJ)
Two persons deprived of liberty accomplished their ballot in front of the Special Electoral Board for PDL inside the Special Polling Place in Calamba City Jail in Laguna on May 9, 2022. To maintain social distancing, only two to three persons at a time were allowed to go out of the gates of the detention cell to cast their vote. The facility's non-contact visitation area was temporarily converted into a polling place for the elections. (Photograph: Joel Mataro/PCIJ)
A person deprived of liberty exercised his right to suffrage as viewed from the Visiting Window of Calamba City Jail in Laguna. Only 61 of the 701 PDLs in the jail were qualified to vote. Majority of the PDLs were not able to register due to strict jail lockdown during the height of the Covid-19 pandemic. (Photograph: Joel Mataro/PCIJ)
A batch of PDLs lines up to obtain their ballots from the Special Election Board poll clerk. Beside them are the uniformed personnel of the Bureau of Jail Management and Penology in Tanauan City Jail in Batangas. Voting here started at 6 a.m. and ended at 2 p.m. to allow time for poll officers to bring the accomplished ballots back to the designated voting centers before they close. (Photograph: Joel Mataro/PCIJ)
A PDL received his ballot from a poll clerk who verified the PDLs’ names on the Election Day Computerized Voter’s List for PDLs in Tanauan City Jail. Before entering a vote-casting area a PDL must provide his or her name, precinct, and sequence number. The poll clerk would check these details and then announce the PDL’s name and check his or her hand if it is clean from indelible ink. The PDL would then receive his ballot. (Photograph: Joel Mataro/PCIJ)
A PDL who has a disability cast his vote in Tanauan City Jail on May 9, 2022. (Photograph: Joel Mataro/PCIJ)
The light of the morning sun glinted on the wired fences of the Calamba City Jail, which became a facility designated as a Special Polling Place for PDLs. Section 155 of the almost four-decade-old Omnibus Election Code states that “no polling place shall be located within the perimeter or inside a military or police camp or reservation or within a prison compound.” But since Comelec issued Resolution No. 9371 setting the rules and regulations on PDL registration and voting for the 2019 elections and subsequent ones, PDLs have been allowed to vote within prison compounds. (Photograph: Joel Mataro/PCIJ)
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