Voting thru mail likely in 39 more countries by 2007

by JEREMAIAH M. OPINIANO
www.ofwjournalism.net

SAN FRANCISCO, USA — OVERSEAS Filipinos spread in four continents who have registered for the national elections next year are expected to vote by mail, a Philippine foreign affairs executive said here.

Vice consul Anthony Mandap of the Philippine Consulate in San Francisco, USA, said the Manila-based Commission on Elections gave the country’s diplomatic posts abroad the news that the commission en banc will likely allow overseas Filipinos situated in 26 diplomatic posts to vote by mail.

These posts cover 39 countries and include the United States. Thus far, only over-9,000 of some 1.85 million Filipinos in these countries have registered for the 2004 elections and in the ongoing voter’s registration.

Mandap said embassies likely to be covered by the prospective Comelec directive include Vienna, Austria; Berlin, Germany; Bucharest, Romania; Budapest, Hungary; Madrid, Spain; Bangkok, Thailand; Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates; Berne, Switzerland; Pretoria, South Africa; Wellington, New Zealand; Singapore; Tel-Aviv, Israel; and Washington, USA.

Consulates and other diplomatic offices of the country that will be likely covered by the vote by mail are Sydney, Australia; Agana, Guam; Milan, Italy; Saipan, Commonwealth of the Northern Marianas Islands; Manado, Indonesia; Geneva, Switzerland; the Manila Economic Cultural Office in Taipei; and the US-based consulates of the country in Honolulu, Los Angeles, New York, Chicago, and San Francisco.

“This (development from Comelec) is certainly good news for Filipino overseas voters in the US,” Mandap said in reference to the 7,011 registrants for the May 14, 2007 elections, and to the 3,537 who registered in 2003.

Those 26 diplomatic offices will join Japan, United Kingdom and Canada (covering three embassies and three consulates) that will allow voting by mail. The three countries, during the 2004 national elections and as per the implementing rules and regulations of Republic Act 9189, piloted the voting through mail mechanism.

The 19 countries mentioned will not only cover the countries where these embassies and consulates are physically situated. Some six embassies and three consulates also cover Filipinos situated in some 20 nearby countries and island-states, and voting by mail will also cover Filipinos coming from those places.

These include: Bulgaria and Moldova (embassy in Bucharest); Poland, Serbia, Montenegro, and Bosnia-Herzegovina (embassy in Budapest); the islands of Nauru, Tuvalu, and Vanuatu (embassy in Canberra); Morocco and Andorra (embassy in Madrid); Cyprus (embassy in Tel-Aviv); Slovenia, Croatia (embassy in Vienna); Marshall Islands, Wake Islands, Micronesia (consulate in Agana); and CNMI islands Tinian, Rota and the Northern Islands (consulate in Saipan).

However, it is not known nor reported if Filipinos from those 20 other countries registered in 2003, and if they crossed islands and border countries to sign up for the ongoing voter’s registration.

Missing in the list of countries to be allowed voting by mail is Saudi Arabia.

An October 6 report by Arab News bared a House oversight committee on overseas voting thumbed down a proposal to allow mailed voting in the Kingdom because Filipinos use postal office (PO) boxes instead of real addresses.

During the 2004 elections, Filipinos there work in places far away from the embassy in Riyadh, the consulate in Jeddah, and the Philippine International School in Al-Khobar, and had to travel hundreds of kilometers driving borrowed vehicles or flying in domestic airlines.

Mandap explained other embassies and consulates formally requested the Comelec to allow registered absentee voters to vote by mail in the 2007 elections.

It is possible other embassies and consulates will be allowed by Comelec if they request that to Manila before Comelec finalizes a resolution for voting by mail, Mandap told the OFW Journalism Consortium.

The United Kingdom, Canada and Japan were initially chosen by framers of RA 9189’s implementing rules and regulations to have voting by mail in the 2004 elections “owing to the efficiency of (their) mailing systems,” wrote a 2004 Statistical and Narrative Report by Comelec’s Committee on Absentee Voting.

But Mandap said that voting by mail works in the US because of “an efficient postal system”.

The US Postal Service website (www.usps.com) bared domestic express mail can be sent the next day for at least US$14.40 (P723.02 in current exchange rates). Meanwhile, domestic priority mail and ordinary letters or cards can be sent in 2-3 days for at least US$0.39 (P19.58) and US$4.05 (P203.35), respectively.

Mandap said the 2004 overseas voting exercise was “cheat-proof” in all embassies and consulates, including the UK, Japan and Canada.

“Those in Manila should expect the same for 2007, and I hope mailed voting will be a big incentive for Filipinos in the US to register and then vote.”

As of October 9, some 3,153 Filipinos in the San Francisco consulate’s jurisdiction have signed up in the ongoing registration to add up to the 855 who signed up in the 2004 elections. The San Francisco consulate covers counties in northern California and northern Nevada, and the states of Alaska, Colorado, Idaho, Montana, Utah, Oregon, Washington and Wyoming.

The figure is tops in the whole US, as 7,011 thus far signing up in the new registration that started on October 1, 2005 and that was extended up to October 31, two months from the original August 31 deadline.

A total of 10,548 Filipinos in the US have thus far registered for the absentee voting elections, as Mandap hopes the number of registrants will increase now that the deadline is extended for the second and last month.

“You can never be satisfied with only nearly 3,153 registered voters thus far, even if our consulate is tops in the whole US.”

Comelec’s 2004 OAV report wrote the turnout of Filipino voters in UK, Canada and Japan (including those via mail) was only 48 percent). Factors for the actual voter-turnout in those countries include “mails returned to sender due to insufficient address(es) provided by voters and a postal strike in the United Kingdom”.

Of the total of 359,297 registered overseas voters worldwide during the 2004 elections (including the 3,537 from the United States), 233,092 actually voted. The actual voters include some 1,730 Filipinos in the US.

Mandap said only 340 Filipinos coming from the San Francisco diplomatic jurisdiction actually voted during the 2004 elections.

In the ongoing voter’s registration, some 129,823 new registrants have signed up for the 2007 elections. From the figure, 43,852 signed up prior to departure at the Ninoy Aquino International Airport (NAIA), 36,967 registered while processing work papers at the Philippine Overseas Employment Administration (POEA), and 49,004 registered in the over-90 embassies and consulates abroad.

“Admittedly, the result of the on-going registration at the Posts was way below our expectations compared to the yield for two months during the 2003 OAV registration,” Comelec’s absentee voting secretariat staff Kabaitan Guinhawa-Valmonte said in an email from Manila to the OFW Journalism Consortium.

Apathy and distance of the Filipinos from the posts are among the prominent reasons for the currently low turnout, but since the May 14, 2007 elections is not a Presidential election, “(thus there is) the low interest of the people,” furthers Guinhawa-Valmonte, whose office is headed by Commissioner Florentino Tuason.

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OFW Journalism Consortium and the Yuchengco Media Fellows Program, University of San Francisco-Center for the Pacific Rim