By William Depasupil | The Manila Times
Elections watchdog Legal Network for Truthful Elections (Lente) has called on the Commission on Elections (Comelec) to strike a balance between a healthy democracy and a healthy electorate for the 2022 national and local elections.
"The challenge of moving forward with the elections during a pandemic does not and should not mean a choice between prioritizing the health of the citizens and the health of the nation's democracy," it said in a statement.
Lente cited the conduct of a plebiscite in Palawan last March, which it said was a clear illustration and suggestion as to how the new normal for elections would be.
"Now, it is imperative for the Comelec and the stakeholders to join in finding the balance between these rights and reimagining democracy-in-action: ensuring that we mitigate the health risks while ensuring the rights of citizens to be able to participate fully and meaningfully in the election process," it added.
Lente also stressed that from the Palawan plebiscite experience, much more could be done to make the elections safer for all participants and stakeholders.
Lente proposed that improved safety protocols should be implemented to mitigate local transmission during electoral activities based on existing health protocols.
Among others, the group said health workers should be tasked to conduct triage at the entrance of the voting center and to help monitor implementation as safety marshals; support staff should be deployed to man Voters' Assistance Desks (VAD) and manage foot traffic; and a reserved pool of Electoral Board Members should be established to help prevent understaffing due to both health and security concerns.
The group also warned against the possibility of crowding around voters' lists and within the waiting areas outside the polling precincts.
Lente recommended that voting centers should be subjected to safety inspection, audit and adjustments, and that on election day, voters should be given individual markers to avoid sharing and prevent transmission.
The poll watchdog also recommended that the health declaration form or HDF and the VAD form should be combined to further streamline the triage process.
To improve accessibility, forms and signages should be translated into English, Filipino, local languages and other accessible formats.
To promote accountability and bolster compliance among all stakeholders, violation of health protocols should be included in the election offenses.
Lente pointed out that public communication, including the utilization of all forms of local media, should be fully utilized to ensure the effectiveness of health protocols and improve the reach and substance of information campaigns by the Comelec and the campaigns to be launched by the individual candidates.
It said that while the coming elections are expected to be more expensive than normal, the layers of challenges may be addressed by developing practices that balance the health risks and ensure that the democratic standards of credibility, transparency, inclusivity and accountability are safeguarded.
"The challenges must be well understood and addressed. The authorities should allow time for continuous dialogue between all stakeholders and the refining of the processes in the new normal," it said.
"Ultimately, the importance should be placed on its people surviving the pandemic and also, the survival of our democracy," Lente added.