By Lito Averia | The Manila Times
PREPARATIONS for the 2022 national and local elections, a particularly challenging one, are under way. Despite news of the availability of vaccines and government plans to inoculate millions of citizens, the Covid-19 pandemic may continue to linger until election day, May 9, 2022 and beyond. The preparations must include Covid-proofing the elections. It’s a good thing that there have been elections held in other countries over the last 10 months of the pandemic which the Commission on Elections (Comelec) can learn.
South Korea was the first country to hold its national elections in April 2020 in the midst of the pandemic and achieved the highest voter turnout in almost three decades. Strict health protocols, physical distancing and extensive contact tracing were implemented before, during and after election day. Election workers and volunteers were supplied with face masks, face shields, gloves and hand sanitizers. Clear rules and regulations that gave guidance as voters entered their assigned polling places were provided. Even voters who were quarantined and recuperating in hospitals were able to participate in the voting through special voting arrangements (SVA).
SVA for senior citizens and persons with disabilities have been institutionalized under Republic Act 10366, which authorized the Comelec to establish accessible polling places, but such polling places were set up in voting centers.
With the pandemic and rules of the Inter-agency Task Force for the Management of Emerging Infections Diseases restricting the mobility of senior citizens and citizens who are highly vulnerable health wise, will the poll body expand the meaning of accessible polling place to include mobile polling places which can go around several barangays to visit elderly voters and highly vulnerable voters, including voters in quarantine or those recuperating in hospitals and healthcare facilities so that they may not be disenfranchised?
A SVA might be early voting. This would allow senior citizens, persons with disabilities, and voters who are highly vulnerable to vote early, say a day or two before election day, at a place designated for the purpose.
Another SVA might be to allow postal voting. Registered voters may receive their ballots early enough, fill in the ballots and submit the filled-in ballots by mail to the designated Comelec office.
Of course, such SVAs will require voters to register as mobile polling places or postal voters with their designated Comelec office and the poll body to set up a system for registration.
Given the increasing number of voters, another SVA may be to redefine the number of days of voting or extending the number of hours of the voting period in order to control the number of voters present within a polling place. The poll body may provide a schedule when a voter can go to his designated polling place through the issuance of the voter’s information sheet.
Voting is still geographically based, meaning, a voter is required to be physically present in the polling place where he is assigned at the city or municipality where he is registered. A registered voter who works in a place other than his home city or municipality must travel back to the city or municipality where he is a registered voter on or before election day.
This is why there is a huge migration of voters from their places of work to their respective home city or municipality on or before election day. This migration of voters would be particularly challenging amid the pandemic with destination cities or municipalities having put in place certain protocols, including the presentation of negative Covid-19 test results and quarantine requirements.
Would it be possible to devise and implement a SVA for registered voters who work in places other than the city or municipality where they are registered?
Perhaps, one such SVA is local absentee voting which allows government officials and employees, members of the Armed Forces of the Philippines, members of the Philippine National Police as well as members of media and their support staff who are duly registered voters and temporarily assigned on election day to perform their duties in places other than the city or municipality where they are registered, to vote provided that they apply as local absentee voters. However, absentee voters can vote only for national positions, that is, president, vice president, senators and party-list representatives.
Perhaps the Comelec can explore extending the coverage of the local absentee voting to include registered voters who work in places other than the city or municipality where they are registered as voters.
And, would it be possible to include local positions to be voted in the local absentee voting?
The pandemic situation has shown that people can work and transact business from home or anywhere. People can buy and place orders online or engage in banking transactions from any geographic location. Why not in elections?
A voting system can be designed in such a manner that would accept the place of registration of a registered voter and his assigned precinct. The voting system would then provide the voter the appropriate ballot in electronic form. The voter can then select candidates for each contest then cast his vote electronically. Of course, the necessary security safeguards should be put in place.
A study conducted by International IDEA (https://www.idea.int/news-media/news/going-against-trend-elections-increased-voter-turnout-during-covid-19-pandemic) on elections held during the pandemic show mixed results in voter turnout. But the implementation of SVAs were found to have contributed to the increase in voter turnout and participation.