There are only a few overseas voters

BABE’S EYE VIEW FROM WASHINGTON D.C. - Babe Romualdez - The Philippine Star

Sadly, in spite of the fact that we have an estimated 12 million Filipinos living overseas, it is unfortunate that only 1.69 million Filipinos and dual citizens living in foreign countries/territories have registered to vote for the 2022 presidential elections. This is a drop from the 1.8 million overseas absentee voters (OAVs) who registered for the 2019 midterm elections, with the voter turnout also at a low 20 percent.

Here in the United States, we have a large number of Filipino-Americans who have decided to become dual citizens (mainly because of the COVID restrictions imposed on foreigners entering the Philippines) – making them eligible to vote, but they opted not to register and vote.

For the 2022 elections, the number of registered OAVs for the United States stands at 212,565. Of that number, 37,657 are under the jurisdiction of the Philippine Embassy in Washington, D.C. while the rest are under the jurisdiction of the consulates across the US and in Guam. In 2019, the number of registered voters in the US was 228,470, and voter turnout was disappointing at 17.29 percent.

One of the reasons why the numbers have been low is due to the tedious process, with registration and voting done by mail or through personal appearance at Philippine embassies or consulates abroad. One other reason why OFWs opt not to vote as well is because they find it difficult to personally register at the embassies or consulates due to the distance they have to travel and having to skip work, too.

Sea-based overseas Filipinos – who comprise only 19,584 out of the 1.69 million who registered – have an even tougher time because the areas where their ships are currently docked may be too far from the Philippine embassies or consulates. And even if they manage to register, how can they vote if they happen to be onboard during the one-month voting period allocated for OFWs?

Under the current system, the Comelec sends to embassies and consulates worldwide the individual voting packets containing instructions, official ballot, envelope and other election paraphernalia. In the US, the voting method is strictly postal, so embassy/consular personnel have to manually put the election materials together and send them out to registered voters – many of whom complain about the inconvenience and the cost of having to go to the post office to send back the filled ballots.

Just like the 2019 midterm elections, problems are being encountered as the shipment of the vote counting machines (VCMs) and ballots from the Comelec was delayed. While the one-month election period is from April 10 to May 9, the first shipment containing approximately one-tenth of the total expected number of ballots only arrived on April 12, with the last shipment of election paraphernalia received by the Philippine Embassy in Washington, D.C. on April 15.

Even during the Holy Week, our embassy personnel were working overtime to process the election packets for mailing to registered voters. In a span of 24 hours since the arrival of the first shipment, they were able to mail several thousands of ballots. Our posts are concentrating on the overseas absentee voting up to May 9, and this is causing consular work to temporarily take a backseat. In spite of the extra work put in by embassy and consular personnel, some people have the temerity to make malicious insinuations that the delays are intentional, and that there is purportedly a conspiracy to deny Filipinos their right to vote. What a lame theory. The embassy and the consulates are not responsible for the shipment of VCMs and ballots.

The government is spending a lot of money and utilizing so many resources, including personnel, for the conduct of the overseas absentee voting. The 2022 presidential election is undoubtedly very important – but the system has not really improved with the same glitches in the past happening again, along with the pandemic compounding the situation.

As far back as three years ago, I have already broached the idea of utilizing smartphones and tablets for overseas voter registration and voting through a secure mobile voting platform from Boston-based technology company Voatz. The app, which uses biometrics and blockchain technology, has a three-step authentication process to confirm the eligibility of a voter who can then input his choices by tapping the name of the candidate on the screen of his gadget. Voatz executives assured me that the technology uses military-grade security that includes data encryption, making it very secure. I understand Voatz has already presented to the Comelec and a test run was conducted last year.

It was Senator Franklin Drilon – principal author of the Overseas Absentee Voting Act of 2003 – who has been urging the Comelec to adopt new technology that would enable OFWs to register and vote online. Overseas absentee votes can be sizable and can help determine the outcome of an election. OFWs are a major contributor to the economy, and they can transform their economic power into a strong political voice.

The election campaign period has become very intense with a number of vicious people turning hysterical to the point of stress and panicking. They should calm down because there is life after May 9. After all, Easter is a time for reflection and redemption – it’s not the end of the world.

Whatever the outcome of the May elections, we should all be ready to accept it and move on to unite as one nation – as this will be the only way for our country to survive and recover from the huge impact of COVID and achieve economic stability.

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Email: [email protected]

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