The Philippine Star : COVID-19 could derail May 2022 elections

News & Interviews
21 September 2021

By Federico D. Pascual Jr. | The Philippine Star

A way must be found fast to prevent the possible disenfranchisement of at least 180,000 voters who could test positive for COVID-19 on Election Day next year, plus a similarly large number who would likely stay away from polling centers for fear of contamination.

We don’t want elections to become pandemic super-spreaders by exposing innocent people to the invisible virus that has infected more than 2,390,000 Filipinos so far by making them congregate in contaminated precincts and handle infected voting paraphernalia. But we must find ways to help those who want to vote.

Statistics show a total of 2,366,749 COVID-19 cases as of Sunday, Sept. 19. Minus the 36,788 who have died of the disease and the 2,151,765 who have recovered, we have 178,196 active cases left. This could be the least number of the infected and the worried voters we have to help.

In the 2016 elections, ex-senator Bongbong Marcos lost to Vice President Leni Robredo only by 263,473 votes – and that was in normal pre-pandemic times. A moneyed loser in a tight race lagging by only a quarter of a million votes can keep the final count hanging for five years.

The Commission on Elections expects some 61 million voters to register for the May 9, 2022, national elections. The voters’ turnout in the presidential elections in 2016 was an impressive 81 percent, then it dropped to 75-78 percent in the 2019 midterm polls.

For next year’s presidential elections, there has been observed heightened interest in registration, especially among the younger voters who appear eager to use the ballot to speak up on disturbing current issues, including incompetence and corruption.

While there should be a big turnout in May, the actual number could be dampened by constraints arising from inherent fears of contamination that could be fanned by efforts to make government responses to the pandemic appear ineffective.

Comelec ready for COVID threat?

What is the Comelec’s plan to prevent the disenfranchisement of voters who happen to test positive or who may still be under quarantine on Election Day?

Comelec spokesman James Jimenez told reporters Friday in a Viber message that the commission had not considered allowing COVID-19 patients to enter polling precincts. The reason he gave was to avoid mass transmission of the virus.

He said: “The Comelec is fully cognizant of the risks – both to the patient and the public – associated with making a COVID-positive person go out to vote. This being so, the idea of requiring such persons to leave their isolation facilities was never really on the table.”

On the side of the Department of Health, Undersecretary Rosario Vergerie asked that the Comelec explore alternatives such as digital or online voting for patients in isolation. The hardware, software and peopleware for that option are available.

Jimenez said, however, that the omnibus election law does not provide for alternative means of voting aside from having the person show up at the precinct on Election Day, fill out the ballot and cast it.

(The obvious solution to that inadequacy of modes is to amend the law. Has the Comelec or anybody in the Congress moved in that direction? Is there time to pass the needed laws, appropriate the money, buy the required hardware/software and organize personnel?)

In the present system, after the voter feeds his accomplished ballot into the machine, the computerized system takes over much of the process until it spews out a report on who won or lost and by how many votes, with nobody having contrary data to challenge the score.

Comelec Chairman Sheriff Abas said earlier that the poll body, in addressing COVID-19 concerns, would set up “isolation polling places or IPPs” on Election Day for those manifesting symptoms of viral infection.

The planned IPPs are not for those already found to be COVID-positive, but for individuals who show symptoms upon arrival at the polling centers. Instead of being turned away, a person with symptoms would be allowed to vote separately from others not so compromised.

We still have to see a timeline showing how soon this IPP plan can be set up, tested and activated.

Imagining another ‘No-El’ card

In other countries, there are complementary voting systems. In the United States, ballots are mailed to voters under a secure system. The accomplished ballots are mailed back or dropped in special boxes and opened then counted according to a schedule.

In the “Laging Handa” media briefing last week, Comelec Commissioner Rowena Guanzon appealed to voters who learn on Election Day that they are COVID-positive to voluntarily stay away to prevent others from catching the virus from them.

Guanzon also said that on Election Day, voters will be made to fill out a health declaration at the precinct before being given the ballot. An infected voter should be honest about his condition and stay away, she said.

This extra stage will increase the time required per voter. It will also add to the administrative burden of handling the forms, reviewing and keeping them for future reference.

Some quarters with a fertile imagination, meanwhile, ask if the pandemic scourge is not being deliberately made to run its scary course precisely to create a crisis so serious that it would justify the postponing of the national elections.

This is the No-El (No Election) card that is flipped open when the game appears to be threatening to spin out of control.

One consequence of postponing a national election that is mandated by the Constitution is for the holdover of key executives, especially the incumbent president, to get a tighter grip on the crisis situation while there are no elected replacements yet.

Our reaction to that pre-Christmas “No-El” thought is “I don’t really know,” which is one way of saying “I hope not.”