MANILA—The House committee on suffrage and electoral reforms has formed a technical working group (TWG) that will finalize the bills seeking to give advance voting privileges to senior citizens, persons with disabilities (PWDs), and those required to work during election day, such as lawyers and teachers.
The TWG will work on the following bills : House Bill 45 by Deputy Speaker and Marikina City Second District Rep. Romero Quimbo, authorizing the Commission on Elections (Comelec) to establish precincts assigned to accessible polling places exclusively for PWDs and senior citizens”; HB 743 by Rep. Emmiline Y. Aglipay Villar (Partylist-DIWA), providing for qualified early voting for senior citizens, PWDs, and workers required to work on election day; HB 1371, providing for local absentee voting for lawyers, HB 1372, providing for local absentee voting for PWDs, and HB 1373, providing for local absentee voting for senior citizens by Rep. Angelina “Helen” D.L. Tan (4th District, Quezon); HBs 2486 and 2487, providing for local absentee voting for senior citizens and PWDs respectively, by Reps. Estrellita B. Suansing (1st District, Nueva Ecija) and Horacio P. Suansing Jr. (2nd District, Sultan Kudarat); and HB 4539, providing for early voting for the national and local elections, by Rep. Maximo B. Rodriguez Jr. (2nd District,Cagayan de Oro City).
The committee chaired by Rep. Sherwin N. Tugna (Partylist-CIBAC) tasked the TWG to study the bills and recommend how to minimize or avoid the disenfranchisement of registered voters, namely senior citizens, PWDs, and those assigned to work during election day, such as lawyers and teachers.
Tan said she refiled her three bills because these were not tackled during the 16th Congress. “I hope these will be passed this time and enacted into law,” said Tan.
Quimbo said the 2016 elections is the new benchmark for having the best elections in the country. But what must be addressed is really the disenfranchisement of senior citizens as well as PWDs, particularly in Metro Manila.
Quimbo said he personally saw that most voting precincts designated for senior citizens and PWDs, such as public school buildings, are four or five storeys high.
“I have personally seen that. And the data will show that in terms of turnout, while senior citizens are approximately almost 15 percent of the total voting population, quite a great number of them in fact did not turn out,” Quimbo said.
Quimbo said Comelec data show that there are 318,013 PWDs and 6.695 million senior citizens registered to vote during the May 2016 elections.
“After the 23 percent low voter turnout of these two sectors during the 2013 midterm elections, there was a clamor for disability inclusivity in the elections. Thus, the past administration enacted Republic Act 10366 which mandates the Comelec to establish accessible polling places (APPs) exclusively for PWDs and the elderly,” said Quimbo.
Despite said law, Quimbo said Mia Esteban, aged 74 , and Josefa Basarde, aged 65, waited in line under the heat of the sun for three hours to vote at the designated emergency accessible polling places (EAPP) at the President Corazon Aquino Elementary School in Batasan Hills, Quezon City during the May 2016 polls.
”Through HB 45, which seeks to amend Republic Act 10366 or An Act Authorizing The Commission On Elections To Establish Precincts Assigned To Accessible Polling Places Exclusively For Persons With Disabilities And Senior Citizens, and improve the voting experience of the vulnerable sector by assigning an earlier voting day for the elderly and the PWDs, the voting process will be expedited, streamlined and convenient,” Quimbo said.
The bill mandates the Comelec to designate an APP within the premises of the municipal or city hall exclusively for senior citizens and PWDs. Under RA 10366, an APP is the venue where the Board of Election Inspectors (BEIs) conducts election-related proceedings and where the voters cast their votes. The APP shall be located at the ground floor preferably near the entrance of the building, and is free of any physical barriers and provided with necessary services, including assistive devices.
Suansing said suffrage is one of the people’s most fundamental rights and the hallmark of the country’s democracy. “Thus, all barriers to exercise this right must be minimized or eliminated. The elderly and PWDs are susceptible to encountering these barriers. Many of them are unable to vote simply because they do not have the ability to travel to voting precincts, thus laws should be enacted to eliminate the barriers we face to exercise this right,” said Suansing.
He said local absentee voting is only available to local officials and government employees, members of the Philippine National Police (PNP), Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) and media practitioners. “Many of the senior citizens and PWDs have been deprived of their right for too long, therefore I would like to appeal for the immediate passage of HBs 2486 and 2487,” said Suansing.
Rodriguez said many states in the U.S. now allow early voting, in which ballots are cast prior to election day. “The primary argument in favor of early voting is that it increases turnout by making it easier to vote,” Rodriguez said.
He said a research showed that in 24 states in the U.S. with no excuse absentee voting, voter turnout increased in 2004 in the aggregate by 6.7 percent, whereas it increased by 6.2 percent for the other states.
In the 11 states in the U.S. that had early voting in both 2002 and 2004 elections, turnout increased by an aggregate average of 7.2 percentage points as compared to 6.2 percent in states without early voting, according to Rodriguez.
Tugna asked the resource persons about the risk of having an advance voting or absentee voting for individuals such as PWDs, senior citizens and members of the media in relation to the integrity of the elections.
Comelec Chairman Andres Bautista said the Comelec is looking for ways by which it can make the voting process more convenient and comfortable especially for the voters who need assistance such as senior citizens and PWDs. “That is why this bill for us is a step in the right direction, and the question really is just how to implement and operationalize it,” Bautista said.
Bautista said what needs to be addressed are the possible operational difficulties and security issues tied to early voting.
He explained the ballots that are being used are precinct-specific which means that if a voter is registered in Markina City, then he will have a ballot that bears the names of all the candidates in Marikina City. “That is why in the local absentee voting scenario, one usually votes outside Marikina, and the ballot given only contains the names of the candidates for national positions,” Bautista said.
On the issue of security, Bautista said what happens for example in the U.S. is that they mail their ballots early, so these have to be kept in a safe place.
“So for example there are 50,000 ballots, then we have to keep all of them in a safe place, make sure they are secured, and that there are no switching of these ballots. So these are the things that come to our mind as practical challenges. At the same time, these are things that we can look into and see how we can implement the concept of early voting which I am for,” said Bautista.
Bautista said during their past U.S. trip, he and Comelec Commissioner Rowena Guanzon observed that in Los Angeles and Washington D.C., over 20 percent already voted even before election day. “In the U.S., early voting has become the norm. This is something we have to consider with respect to our elections,” said Bautista.
He proposed to the lawmakers to consider the use of other government buildings for APPs and even malls for the convenience of the elderly and PWDs.
Other House members present during the hearing were Reps. Jonathan Sy Alvarado (1st District, Bulacan), Pablo C. Ortega (1st District, La Union), Xavier Jesus D. Romualdo (Lone District, Camiguin), Joseph Stephen S. Paduano (Partylist-ABANG LINGKOD), France L. Castro (Partylist-ACT TEACHERS), among others.