Elections in the time of COVID

SKETCHES - Ana Marie Pamintuan (The Philippine Star) - May 10, 2021 - 12:00am

Even amid the continuing COVID surge, and fears that the double mutant variant from India has reached our shores, the nation must also prepare for a major event next year.

As of last Friday, that event was just a year and three days away, as counted by James Jimenez, spokesperson for the Commission on Elections. The Comelec is deep in preparations for the general elections on May 9, 2022, with the pandemic compelling changes in the conduct of the campaign and actual vote.

“We’ve been planning all along for elections to happen under pandemic conditions. We never had any great hopes na matatapos ito by 2022,” Jimenez told us on “The Chiefs” last Friday on Cignal TV’s One News.

At least the COVID restrictions have not dampened enthusiasm for voter registration, Jimenez noted. With 1.6 million out of the estimated four million new voters already registered, he said, “we’re actually doing pretty great.”

But he says there will be many changes in the other aspects of Elections 2022.

While in-person campaigning cannot be completely banned, there will be limitations on crowd size, and eating during campaign rallies will be banned, to ensure that masks and face shields stay on. Politicians should welcome this, since it will mean lower expenses.

A bigger problem is monitoring campaigning on social media, even if it was classified by the Comelec as part of broadcast media in the last elections, and therefore could be monitored by the poll body for ad placements and spending limits.

But there is no law governing this aspect of Philippine elections. Jimenez says the Comelec has been asking Congress since 2013 for legislation to regulate social media.

He did not say it outright, but of course our lawmakers have no appetite for changing the status quo when it works for them. The system might be broken from the point of view of the Comelec and the public, but opaqueness in campaign finance works perfectly well for lawmakers. So if it ain’t broke as far as they are concerned, why fix it?

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There are many measures to regulate campaigning and enhance the integrity of the vote, Jimenez says, but they need new laws.

He cites as an example sending money through your phone.

“That is very hard to police. I for one don’t know how we can police that. I don’t know that anyone has been able to police that,” he said. “Ang problema kasi, when we talk about these things, these are changes that should not only apply to elections. These are changes that should apply to the whole range of e-government. Unfortunately we ignore it, and then pagdating ng eleksyon pipilitin natin Comelec, bakit wala kayong ginagawa?”

The private sector is moving to address such issues, but not the government, Jimenez says.

“So that’s a little frustrating. It’s doubly frustrating because everyone looks to Comelec and expects Comelec to pull the solutions out of thin air, and then criticizes Comelec for not being able to do it,” he sighs.

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As for doable changes arising from the pandemic, the Comelec is still considering two-day voting. But Jimenez admits it is risky to leave ballot boxes sitting overnight or even for two to three hours in the polling precincts.

The preferred solution, he says, is a longer voting day of up to 12 hours. But teachers, who start working on election day as early as 3 a.m., could be prone to errors if they are made to work that long. There could be two shifts, but for this, he says the 110,000 precincts nationwide will need 650,000 teachers.

Jimenez says mobile voting is not provided by law. Postal voting is done only for those overseas, and he says that the country’s postal system “is still in the process of modernization.”

A possible solution is to expand the absentee voting law, so that more people can cast their votes ahead: indigenous people, for example, as well as persons with disabilities and other vulnerable sectors.

The Comelec at least has had some help from the social media platforms, in tracking political ads, for example, but only up to a certain extent; ad placements still cannot be tracked in real time.

Apart from voter registration and changes in the campaign and the way we will vote, the Comelec is also moving to counteract what Jimenez describes as “voter suppression tactics” using disinformation on social media.

He cites three such rumors: that there will be no elections in 2022; that people know who you voted for; and “in some specific context, the rumor that there is only one candidate running for office.”

Jimenez did not name the one candidate.

*      *      *

With the filing of certificates of candidacy set in October, by this time 2022 political plans should be firming up for both individuals and political parties, even with the COVID virus raging.

Duterte’s bete noire, retired Supreme Court Justice Antonio Carpio, spearheaded the launch last March of 1Sambayanan, which aims to field a common opposition candidate.

Facing The Chiefs last week, Carpio mentioned only two potential presidential candidates of the movement so far: Vice President Leni Robredo and Manila Mayor Isko Moreno.

Carpio reiterated that only a common candidate would give the opposition a chance against Duterte’s preferred successor.

But we’re not seeing unity either in the administration camp. Sen. Manny Pacquiao appears bent on seeking the presidency, and is bickering with his own (and Duterte’s) party, the PDP-Laban.

Surveys on the presidential race show Duterte’s daughter, Davao City Mayor Sara Duterte-Carpio leading the pack, but her father seems cool to the idea and instead keeps endorsing his loyal aide Sen. Bong Go.

This could be the greatest challenge in the 2022 vote: how to make the majority of Filipinos vote on issues rather than personalities, and make informed choices.

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