With the coronavirus still out there, and at least 500,000 COVID-19 cases in the country as of last count, most people would rather stay home than go out and risk contracting the severe respiratory ailment. Among other factors, it is this fear of infection that has slowed down the registration of voters which, the Commission on Elections (Comelec) has admitted, stands at just over 1.1 million as of Jan. 14, five months since voter registration resumed on Sept. 1, 2020, after the coronavirus lockdown.
“We are behind our target of four [million] new registrants,” Election Commissioner Rowena Guanzon tweeted last week, as she urged people to register before the Sept. 30, 2021 deadline.
In September last year, Pampanga Rep. Mikey Arroyo also used the COVID-19 virus as reason enough for the Comelec to defer next year’s polls, citing the crowds and lack of social distancing expected during the campaign and election period. His self-serving suggestion was promptly shot down by several senators who described it as an “anti-democratic” term-extending ploy and a “clear violation” of the Constitution which guarantees people’s inalienable right to vote.
Instead, Senate Minority Leader Franklin Drilon urged the Comelec to come up with “adaptive and mitigating measures” and promised it “sufficient funds” to make sure that the pandemic won’t stand in the way of the May 2022 national elections. Sen. Francis Pangilinan also suggested other means to protect the health of voters aside from established safety protocols, such as extending the voting day to two days, and moving voting precincts to more spacious venues like basketball courts, plazas, gymnasiums, and similar grounds to allow physical distancing.
As former Comelec commissioner Gregorio Larrazabal pointed out, despite the pandemic, some 40 countries including the United States, South Korea, Singapore, Iceland, and Russia managed to hold elections last year. Maybe the Comelec can skim the best pandemic-era election practices from these countries?
The poll body has set up a website (Comelec.gov.ph) and Facebook account where registrants can find the application form and book an appointment to avoid long queues and minimize exposure to the virus. Registration hours are from Tuesday to Saturday, from 8 a.m. to 3 p.m. Qualified to register are Filipino citizens 18 years old on or before May 9, 2022, who are residents of the Philippines for at least a year, and of the place where they intend to vote for at least six months.
After finding the forms needed, registrants can print and fill them out at home, but must leave the signature and thumbprint blank, as they have to be accomplished before a witness at the Comelec office. They have to photocopy at least one of several government-issued IDs and bring the original and photocopy with them to the Comelec. Registrants must also bring their own ballpen, face mask and shield, alcohol or hand sanitizer, and water (to stay hydrated).
With safety protocols in place, among them filling out a contract tracing form, the entire procedure is expected to last some two hours, inclusive of picture-taking and capturing one’s biometrics or fingerprints.
Yes, it’s a fairly long and tedious process, but definitely worth the privilege and the right to ditch through the ballot box all the smug, inept grandees of the ruling order one has come to loathe, and make them account for all their lapses and excesses. Make them face their moment of reckoning by voting into office only those who have lived up to the public trust.
“To register and vote is (to tell) the world that ‘I have a stake in our democracy, I have a say in where the country is going in the future,’” reminded Larrazabal, adding that voting is empowering oneself. “If you register and vote, your chances of making a difference increase substantially.”
With the Philippines at a pivotal crossroads—its economy crashing to its worst state since the war, hobbled by the world’s longest lockdown that has bankrupted thousands of businesses and left millions jobless; its health care system looted of billions by its own officials; its Charter in danger of being revised to accommodate foreign ownership of key industries and possibly term extensions for elected officials—next year’s elections are assuming the proportions of a historic reset for the country. It can save or doom the next generation of Filipinos, who have to carry a crushing debt burden and counter threats to the country’s sovereignty and economy from a superpower neighbor favored by the current administration.
Voting in these critical times is an absolute necessity especially for the young who would most likely be around to enjoy—or suffer—the consequences of their choice. With some 20 million of them, or one-third of the 60 million registered voters, their voice as articulated by their ballot choices is set to shape our collective future. May they use it wisely.