Overseas Absentee Voting: Voter Turnout Apprehensions

oavOn April 13, 2013, national elections will start early for all overseas Filipinos around the globe. The choosing will only be limited to  party-list representatives and the 12 seats vacated by senators whose terms expire on June 30 noon. Votes for local candidates from governors down to the sangguniang bayan members, and local congressmen will not be included in the electronic ballot. COMELEC find it difficult to print ballots of different LGUs and to electronically configure the voting program to suit every Filipino living abroad who came from different local government units at home.

However, the biggest problem that besets the coming elections for OAV (overseas absentee voting) is to reach the target set by the COMELEC of a 50%-voter turnout.

Overseas Absentee Voting was first conducted in the presidential elections of 2004. The law was passed in 2003, after which only two months were allocated for registration. Of the 359,297 registered voters, it was said that 233,092 or 65% had voted. It was considered a success by the election body then considering the several problems it encountered prior, during and after the elections. In 2007, the mid-term elections resulted in a low voter turnout. From the 503,896 registrants, only 81,732 or 16% voted. This was a very sudden dropped (even in actual numbers) from the 2004 elections. COMELEC was quite optimistic with the voter turnout in the 2010 presidential elections. But after the exercise, of the 589,830 registrants, only 141,846 or 24% voted. There was only a 6% increase.

The sharp decline in 2007 was attributed by COMELEC to the fact that it was a mid-term election and voters were not so much keen in casting votes to fill up the senate seats, compared to electing a new president. They predicted a rebound in 2010. They were dismayed. The low turnout of 24% in 2010 further gave doubts to their alibi that mid-term elections do not encourage many voters.

I however have some reservations to the statistics presented by COMELEC in 2004 with respect to the OAV turnout. There might have been some inaccuracies. The 233,092 figure may not be totally true? We can recall that the national elections at that time was purely manual and the whole practice was rigged. If Arroyo could have pulled 1 million ghost votes in Mindanao, was it not possible for her to control the overseas absentee votes? It was likewise very doubtful to rush the passing of the OAV bill into law in 2003, and set up registration for two months to catch up with the 2004 voting? The whole OAV system may have been built to buffer any deficiency Arroyo might incur in the mainland elections. Maybe the Mindanao scheme was not yet in place then or maybe it was set up to augment it. The 65% turnout is quite shady for a new system.

To draw a clearer picture, the graph would depict a zig-zag line with highs during presidential elections and lows during mid-term elections. I may peg the 2004 elections at 20% turnout and not 65%.

The 2013 mid-term elections may not be any different from the 2007. Sad as it may, but it might not surpass the 2010 voter turnout. Most Filipinos do not see any impact in filling up the vacant seats left by the 12 senators. Unlike voting for the president, who wields all the major powers in the government, voting for the senators will not translate into any major changes in the government.

The other factor that does not give OAVs the fun and thrill to vote abroad is the absence of local elections in their ballots. Most Filipinos, accept it or not, are compelled to vote not because they care about electing national officials. They vote because they support local candidates who may be either their relatives, friends or allies. Others vote because of some considerations, in cash or in kind. During the OAV registration, most Filipinos would inquire whether local elections are part of the ballot. Some would not even register because they prefer to vote at home.

Filipinos who are permanent residents (green card holders, pink card holders, etc.) of other countries fear that they might lose their chance of gaining the host country’s citizenship if they vote in the Philippine elections.  The dilemma whether to register or not, vote or not, always comes at the choice between two citizenships. In this issue, the permanent residents take more into consideration the host country’s laws.

What is crucial in generating higher voter turnout is the information campaign that must be undertaken by the Philippine embassies (DFA) and the COMELEC. Every Filipino should be made aware of the election period so that he may prepare himself and marks his calendar for the activity. Filipino community associations must also be given the lead to spearhead and encourage Filipinos to vote. The band-wagon mentality still works with exercises like these. Social networking sites such as facebook and twitter must be used to disseminate information on the elections. The embassies should convey as much information they have on the event.

One way of ‘forcing’ a higher voter turnout is to give Filipinos a ‘no choice situation’ during the elections. It is undeniable that the right to vote also carries with it the duty to vote. Every Filipino has the civic duty to participate in the exercise. I believe it is not a violation of one’s right to ‘compel’ someone to vote during these times. Filipinos line up every day at embassies to process their official documents, passports and other papers. Why not put conditions on the facilitation or accommodation of these processes? For example, why not require first the individual to vote before continuing with facilitation of his papers? What violation could the embassy make? In the first place, it is the duty under the law of the individual to vote.

With around two weeks before the actual elections start, let us cross our fingers that the turnout will be better this time around.

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