SOURCE: Press and Public Affairs Bureau
The House committee on suffrage and electoral reforms recently approved the substitute bill to several proposals allowing the early voting of qualified senior citizens and persons with disabilities (PWDs) in national and local elections.
The committee chaired by Rep. Sherwin N. Tugna (Party-list, CIBAC) approved the unnumbered substitute bill for the following: House Bill 5019 by Speaker Pantaleon D. Alvarez, expanding the coverage of absentee voting to PWDs and senior citizens; HB 45 by Deputy Speaker and Marikina City Second District Rep. Romero Quimbo, authorizing the Commission on Elections (Comelec) to establish precincts assigned to accessible polling places exclusively for PWDs and senior citizens; HB 743 by Rep. Emmiline Y. Aglipay Villar (Partylist-DIWA), providing for qualified early voting for senior citizens, PWDs, and workers required to work on election day; HB 1371, providing for local absentee voting for lawyers, HB 1372, providing for local absentee voting for PWDs, and HB 1373, providing for local absentee voting for senior citizens by Rep. Angelina “Helen” D.L. Tan (4th District, Quezon); HBs 2486 and 2487, providing for local absentee voting for senior citizens and PWDs respectively, by Reps. Estrellita B. Suansing (1st District, Nueva Ecija) and Horacio P. Suansing Jr. (2nd District, Sultan Kudarat); and HB 4539, providing for early voting for the national and local elections, by Rep. Maximo B. Rodriguez Jr. (2nd District,Cagayan de Oro City).
The substitute bills aim to enhance the voting process to make it more comfortable and convenient for the voters, particularly PWDs and senior citizens, by giving them the option to vote earlier than the date set for election.
The substitute bill and its corresponding committee report were approved by the committee upon the motions of Rep. Anthony M. Bravo (Party-list, COOP NATCCO) and Deputy Speaker and Cebu Third District Rep. Gwendolyn F. Garcia, respectively.
Tugna said the harmonized version of the bills is a result of the voting experiences of senior citizens, PWDs and the authors of the measures during past and recent elections.
Section 2 of the substitute bill provides that for national and local elections, there shall be early voting, where a qualified senior citizen or PWD may choose to appear and vote at the polling place designated by the Comelec within seven working days before the date set for the election, and vote in a booth as one would on Election Day, including both national and local positions.
The bill further provides there shall be a nationwide registration for senior citizens and PWDs who wish to avail of their early voting privileges. Those who are not registered for early voting may vote on Election Day as usual, the bill provides.
Among the obligations of the Comelec are to keep a record of senior citizens and PWDs who are registered voters and to design a registration system that would allow senior citizens and PWDs to register and opt for early voting in order to improve their voting experience in national and local elections.
The Comelec shall also coordinate with local government units (LGUs), the National Council for Disability Affairs (NCDA), the Commission on Human Rights (CHR), the Department of Health (DOH), and the Department of Interior and Local Government (DILG) in designating a system to improve the voting experience of qualified senior citizens and PWDs.
Moreover the Comelec shall ensure the full implementation of RA 10366 such that polling places for senior citizens and PWDs are safe, highly accessible and complete with the necessary mobility, communication, visual and other forms of assistance where senior citizens and PWDs may be able to cast their votes with ease.
Lastly, the Comelec shall mount an intensive information campaign on early voting for qualified senior citizens and PWDs.
The amounts necessary to fund early voting for qualified senior citizens and PWDs in national and local elections shall be included in the General Appropriations Act (GAA) for the corresponding fiscal year.
The bill provides that the provisions of the Omnibus Election Code, RA 7166, and other election laws consistent herewith shall be applied to early voting for qualified senior citizens and PWDs.
Within 90 days after the approval of the Act, the Comelec, in consultation with any other relevant government and non-government agencies, shall draft and adopt the rules and regulations necessary to implement the Act.
During the hearing, Comelec Chairman Andres Bautista proposed an amendment to Section 2 of the bill so that the voting place shall be ‘’accessible public schools, government offices, and private establishments’’ to give flexibility to the Comelec to choose what will be the best place for a community.
Bautista said the Comelec officials in its en banc meeting discussed the substitute bill and are supportive of and in accord with the purpose and objective of the proposal.
Bautista said in their en banc meeting, they deliberated on the practical and possible logistical challenges in case of early voting.
“Some of the potential issues that were identified and discussed were issues on the security of the ballot. Because once you shade it, what do you do with it, do you keep it? And if you keep it where do you put it?,” Bautista said.
The possibility of a senior citizen wanting to vote earlier but later on does not, and then appears on election day was also discussed according to Bautista. “Will he or she still be given the opportunity to vote, because there is the possibility of double voting,” Bautista said.
Moreover, Bautista said there is the issue on the number of days to be allotted for early voting, because more days provided means more budgetary constraints.
Another consideration, Bautista said, is the printing of the ballots for early voting. He said the local absentee voting process is quite easy to administer because it only covers national candidates, it is done manually, and the ballots are kept and just counted on election day. “’It is easy to administer, but this one, if we want the PWDs and senior citizens to be able to vote for both the national and local (elections), then we will have to print the automated ballots, we will have to print them earlier and then we will have to sort them out,” said Bautista.
As of now, Bautista said there are 300,000 PWDs and over six million senior citizens all over the country. “’We have to sort out the ballots to make sure that they are sent to the right precincts if they are going to be counted in the precincts where they were originally assigned,’’ he said.
Bautista said if the Comelec has new machines for early voting, then it can be done and the machines have to be configured differently at the same time.
Suansing clarified that if based on Comelec rules, early voting can be done in one day within the seven working days before election day. “Per the substitute bill what I understand is that we can allot one day only. What will be added is only the manpower,” said Suansing.
Bautista said he agrees with Suansing that if it is done in one day, within a seven day radius, then it can be done but accompanying issues such as the right ballot should be given to the voter.
Rep. Anthony M. Bravo (Party-list, COOP NATCCO) asked how many machines are needed to service the PWDs and senior citizens in one day. Bautista replied an ideal set-up is to have 500 voters per machine.
Rep. Joseph Stephen S. Paduano (Party-list, ABANG LINGKOD) said the double voting scenario is farfetched since senior citizens and PWDs are organized in their communities and with adequate information campaign, they will be able to vote early on the day allotted to them before election day.
Remberto Esposa Jr., Manila Christian Computer Institute for the Deaf (MCCID) training director, said his concern is to have a polling precinct with a paid interpreter in the premises.
Rep. France I. Castro (Party-list, ACT Teachers) inquired with the Comelec about the figures on the differently disabled. Kristine Cardona of the National Movement for Free Elections (Namfrel) said based on the data provided by the Comelec Education and Information Department headed by James Jimenez, there are: 50,997 with physical disability; 38,280 with visual disability; 7,786 with hearing disability; and 6,857 with speech disability.
Johnny Cardenas of the Parish Pastoral Council for Responsible Voting (PPCRV) (PPCRV) said through the COMELEC, they prepared a data based on the 2016 elections and found out that those who voted had the following disabilities: 52,752 voters with physical disability, 7,895 with hearing impairment; 6,966 with speech defect; and 39,024 with visual defects. There were 32,187 who did not indicate their disability. Those with multiple disabilities totaled 11,557 according to him.
As to the number of PWDs who needed assistance, the figures are as follows according to Cardenas: communication assistance, 7,266; accessible precincts, 19,627; visual assistance, 7,144; multiple assistance 15,213; not needing assistance, 25,254; and unidentified assistance needed, 111,645. He said this was done in preparation for the accessible polling places (APPs).
Also present during the hearing were: committee vice chairperson Rep. Luisa Lloren Cuaresma (Lone District, Nueva Viscaya), and Reps. Angelina Tan (4th District, Quezon), Pablo C. Ortega (1st District, La Union), Aniceto “John” D. Bertiz III (Party-list, ACT OFW) and Cristal L. Bagatsing (5th District, Manila), among others. / ICY JR.