The Manila Times - Voter registration challenges in the new normal

16 September 2020

By Lito Averia | The Manila Times

JUDGING from posts on the Facebook page of the Commission on Elections (Comelec), voter-registrants for the May 9, 2022 national and local elections welcomed the resumption of voter registration last Sept. 1, 2020 after registration was suspended due to the Covid-19 pandemic. However, soon after the voter registration started, the Metro Manila Council, citing the risks of coronavirus transmission, sought its deferment to January 2021. If deferred anew, only nine months will be left as the registration period ends in September 2021, which may not be sufficient to accommodate the projected number of registrants of about 5 to 7 million.

The suspension of voter registration appears to be a knee-jerk reaction from mayors in the National Capital Region. What if the same or worse pandemic conditions continue to prevail in the next year or two? Will voter registration be set aside altogether? Indefinite suspension of voter registration may result in denying the voter-registrants their right to vote come May 9, 2022, the day when Filipino voters will choose a new set of leaders in the executive and legislative branches of government.

Citizens are learning to live with the coronavirus by observing health and safety protocols. The poll body promulgated Resolution 10674, “Protocols on the Conduct of the System of Continuing Registration of Voters, Institutionalizing the Health and Safety Standards under the New Normal,” adopting health and safety measures prescribed by the Department of Health and the Inter-Agency Task Force for the Management of Emerging and Infectious Diseases (IATF-EID). A specific risk was raised: that the registrant will have to remove his face mask when his picture is taken. The Comelec resolution includes instructions such as conducting interviews and identity verification through glass windows or plastic sheet barriers and the removal of face mask and shield only at the exact time when the photograph of the voter-registrant is taken.

Voter registration observation is a big challenge due to travel restrictions. It is highly likely that observers will not be allowed inside Comelec offices because Resolution 10674 does not include observation guidelines.

Access to technology is one challenge. One must have a device or access to it in order to download the registration and health declaration forms and set up an appointment, a printer to print the forms, and a reliable connection to the internet.

Access to transportation is another challenge. A Makati resident said that there is no available means of public transportation from his place of residence near Taguig to the Comelec local office near the Makati City Hall. Traveling by taxi is a costly option.

Still in Makati, a registrant presented an unsigned application form that was accomplished using a computer. It was rejected and the registrant was told that it had to be handwritten. Nothing in Resolution 10674 provides that the application form had to be accomplished by hand.

Scanning the airwaves in the early hours of registration on the first day, in Manila, a reporter said that there were voter-registrants who are part of the vulnerable sector — senior citizens and those below 21 years of age. Citing IATF-EID guidelines prohibiting them from leaving home, they were not allowed to register. There were walk-in registrants, too, who were not accommodated because they had not secured an appointment via iRehistro. Perhaps this was due to lack of promotion of the guidelines for voter registration. Comelec spokesman James Jimenez was quick to say that in such cases, registrants may be accommodated when they are already at the Comelec office.

From Facebook posts:
A user with a registrant below 21 years old narrated that they were already in line, but they did not make it to the cut-off. Either they did not make the 3 p.m. cut-off time or they were beyond the number of registrants who could be accommodated. They had to return the following day only to find that the local Comelec office had issued a memo saying that registrants below 21 years old will not be able to register due to IATF-EID restrictions. The user asked why the memo was issued only on the day they returned.

Some users raised common issues: Comelec’s website not working; they were unable to download or had difficulty downloading the forms; and they had to spend for printing and transportation to get to a place where they could have the forms printed.

Techie users posted that they had saved the forms on google drive where other users can download the forms.

Some users requested that the forms be emailed to them.

Other users gave suggestions:
– Schedule registrants by assigning days when they can go to the Comelec office based on the first letter of their surnames.

– Provide forms in barangay centers, malls and other publicly accessible places.

– Set up satellite registration centers to bring the registration closer to the people.

Resolution 10674 or its implementation on the ground can be refined. One way is for the Comelec to go through the Facebook posts, resolve issues raised, implement suggestions, and make voter registration more convenient, inclusive and accessible. Another is the granular-localized approach with (national) Comelec granting the local Comelec offices and their respective host LGUs more autonomy to decide on the finer details of voter registration.

The challenges faced by registrants cited above are just in Metro Manila. Imagine the challenges that await registrants in the provinces and the countryside. The pandemic has certainly forced changes in how government and citizens do things. Comelec, the ball is with you.