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Overseas voting for May 9 polls off to a bad start

Voter filling out ballot. STORY: Overseas voting for May 9 polls off to a bad start

IMAGE: Daniella Marie Agacer

MANILA, Philippines — Absentee voting for Filipinos overseas was off to a bad start, described as “chaotic and disorganized” on the first day on Sunday in Hong Kong and delayed in North America as the ballots and other election paraphernalia from Manila got stalled in transit in Alaska.

A record 1,697,215 registered overseas absentee voters began voting for national candidates on April 10 until Election Day on May 9. Overseas voters may only vote for president, vice president, 12 senators, and a party list group.

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The Commission on Elections (Comelec) said the start of the monthlong overseas absentee voting in five Philippine foreign posts was delayed due to difficulties in shipping election materials.

Overseas voting did not start as scheduled on April 10 in the Philippine embassies in Wellington, New Zealand; Islamabad, Pakistan, and Dili, Timor-Leste, as well as in the Philippine consulates general in Milan, Italy and in New York.

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“Due to logistical difficulties encountered in the shipment of the election materials, the said posts will start overseas voting at a later date,” Comelec announced on Sunday.

The start of overseas voting in the Philippine consulate general in Shanghai, China, was also suspended while the city is under a strict COVID-19 lockdown.

According to Comelec, half of the country’s 92 foreign posts would use an automated elections system.

A total 1,023,637 overseas absentee voters will vote in-person; 556,760 voters will mail their ballot, while 116,818 voters may choose either option.

Last week Commissioner in charge Marlon Casquejo said they were inclined to suspend overseas voting in Iraq, Algeria, Chad, Tunisia, Libya, Afghanistan and Ukraine, which have a combined 127 registered voters.

House probe

Filipinos in Hong Kong complained that the Philippine consular office could not accommodate the thousands who trooped to the Bayanihan Center at Victoria Road, Kennedy Town, to cast their vote.

Bayan Muna Rep. Ferdinand Gaite on Sunday called for an immediate probe on the “chaotic and disorganized election system in Hong Kong.”

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Gaite sought an immediate investigation after a United Filipinos-Migrante HK member claimed that the Philippine consular office failed to accommodate all Filipinos who queued up to avail themselves of absentee voting.

Dolores Pelaez of Unifil-Migrante said there were only five, instead of 10, vote-counting machines (VCMs) provided by Comelec to the consular office.

She added that thousands had already lined up to vote at the Bayanihan center before Hong Kong Consul General Raly Tejada announced that only 3,000 would be allowed to cast their vote.

There are some 93,000 overseas Filipino workers who are registered voters in Hong Kong.

Disenfranchisement

Gaite said he would ask the House committee on suffrage and electoral reforms to summon Comelec, the Department of Foreign Affairs and the Hong Kong consular office to look into the complaint.

Gaite pointed out, “We cannot allow the potential massive disenfranchisement of our overseas voters due to the ineptitude and lack of proper organizing by these officials.”

Overseas Filipino voters in North America have also expressed fear of possible disenfranchisement among their group, blaming the apparent unpreparedness of Comelec and Philippine embassies and consulates and their failure to properly disseminate information on the electoral process.

According to Migrante International, overseas voters received during previous elections their ballots ahead of the starting day of the overseas absentee voting.

“But this time, Comelec will be sending voting ballots in North America only after April 10. This is totally unacceptable and we believe it’s a deliberate move to deny our kababayan of their right to vote,” said Pelaez, also the secretary general of Migrante International.

Pelaez was referring to a Twitter post on April 7 by Comelec spokesperson James Jimenez saying: “In North America (US and Canada) where overseas voting is going to be by mail, the ballots will be sent out upon the start of the voting period. Expect to receive your ballots after April 10.”

“Overseas voting starts on April 10, 2022, but we still do not have any electronic or printed information regarding the process for overseas voting. Nor do we have our ballots,” read an open letter-petition published on advocacy platform The Action Network and addressed to Philippine Consul General in New York Elmer Cato, Philippine Ambassador to the US Jose Manuel Romualdez, and Comelec.

The letter-petition was signed by more than a hundred members of the Filipino American community in the United States, including human rights lawyer Ruben Carranza, poet Luis H. Francia and writer Eric Gamalinda.

According to the signatories, the delays in the transport of election materials and the general lack of timely information on the voting process was “unacceptable,” stressing that “it has the effect of disenfranchising voters,” particularly in the northeastern United States.

“It also raises reasonable concerns that the Comelec and the Philippine Consulate in New York might be intentionally and purposefully denying our constitutionally protected right to vote in this year’s elections,” they added.

With the big budget allocated for the conduct of the May 2022 polls, the overseas Filipino voters said the consulate “must already have been empowered, organized, and prepared to act as the sole enfranchising agent for Filipino voters.”

One of the signatories to the letter-petition, Grace Bejosano, a first-time overseas absentee voter in New York, said among her concerns included the period of time it would take for her to receive the ballot and mail it back to the consulate before the deadline as she cited delays in postal services due to COVID-19.

Unfair

In an advisory on its website dated April 9, the Office of the Consulate General in New York said the VCMs, overseas ballots and other materials intended for the May 9 national elections in the Philippines were still in transit.

It said it was informed that these election paraphernalia that were shipped by Comelec from Manila were in Alaska but were expected to arrive “within the week.”

“On Monday, 11 April, we will be hosting a webinar together with the (Comelec) to explain the postal voting method with our kababayan and, at the same time, respond to their election-related queries,” the advisory said.

The consulate said it would conduct the final testing and sealing of VCMs on the same day.

“While we understand the concern of some kababayan about the delay in the arrival of election paraphernalia, their assertion of possible disenfranchisement and of us not being forthcoming about the said delay is unfair on our part as the delay is beyond the control of the consulate,” it added.

Sought for comment, Romualdez described as “unfounded insinuations” the issues raised by the signatories in the letter-petition.

Cato also said that the Philippine embassy and consulate could not be held responsible for the delay in the delivery of the VCMs and other election paraphernalia because they had nothing to do with the shipment as this was the responsibility of Comelec.

“We lament the confrontational manner in which our kababayan belonging to such groups as the Malaya Movement, Bayan-USA and Migrante USA are addressing the issue of the delays and their insinuations … (of) a conspiracy to disenfranchise voters,” Cato told the Inquirer.

“The misplaced sentiment of kababayan aligned with these groups does not reflect the sentiments of the Filipino community in the US Northeast,” he added.

Cato also assured Filipinos who signed the petition that the consulate would see to it that qualified voters in its area of jurisdiction would get to exercise their right to vote within the prescribed election period.

There are 39,048 individuals in the certified list of registered overseas voters covering the states of Connecticut, Delaware, Maine, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New York, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, and Vermont.

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