Issues spook overseas voting sign-up in US

by JEREMAIAH M. OPINIANO
www.ofwjournalism.net


SAN FRANCISCO, USA (October 31) — A HALLOWEEN chill hovered on the lobby of the Philippine consulate here as the last registrant for voting in the Philippines stepped out the front door, down concrete steps, and into a nifty late-afternoon weather.

By 5:00 p.m., and after two hours of waiting for the 4,558th registrant, security details closed the portals into what could still remain the highest record number of Filipinos who registered for absentee voting: 4,557.

That last person is 83-year-old Roberta Dela Rama, who scuffled toward the entrance at 3:00 p.m. (7:00 a.m. November 1 in Manila).

Dela Rama (not her real name), a spouse of a World War II veteran, didn’t know nor didn’t care if she was the last registrant.

She came to the consulate, she said, to apply for dual citizenship, and not to register to vote for the May 2007 elections in the Philippines.

Interviewed at the consulate’s front steps along 447 Sutter Street, Dela Rama added she only knew this was the last day for the registration by chance.

“I registered anyway,” Dela Rama told this writer who stayed beginning at 2:00 p.m., when the last day for registration began. The consulate officially accepted registration since October 1, 2005.

This meant everyday, an average of 17 Filipinos registered to get their voices heard when candidates rely on them next year for the national and local elections in the summer month of May.

“Filipinos here are too busy to sign up,” she said by way of apologizing for the low turn-out of her fellow Filipinos here.

But for other Filipinos interviewed by the OFW Journalism Consortium, distance between registration and voting centers from where they live – measured in miles and miles of highways – is just one of the issues that haunt a satisfying turn-out of overseas absentee voters.

Nonetheless, the 2007 elections registration was more than the list-up for the 2004 elections.

The United States had a final registration count of exactly 7,400 from October 1, 2005 to October 31 this year, for a US-wide total of 10,633 (counting the 3,233 who signed up three years ago).

San Francisco topped the list of Philippine posts with a total of 4,557 registrants of a total estimate of 300,000 Filipinos in this consular jurisdiction.


Rhyme, reasons

NOT giving their real name in exchange for an interview reflects a deeper problem veering them from exercising a right to suffrage.

We have green card holder Arnold –not his real name– who took a tourist hop to this city’s sights with fiancée Rebecca recently.

He is among the qualified voters since, as he claims, he works as a physical therapist in Ventura County, a 69-minute drive from the Philippine consulate in Los Angeles.

But he said even if the consulate is his next-door neighbor, “I will not go there”.

He said he’s focused now more on his work here “to have a secure future, and then enjoy”.

“Why will I vote when I am not in the Philippines? If one is here in the US earning a living, voting for the homeland will be the last thing on your mind”.

He still can register in 2009 for a possible presidential election in 2010. But he says he won’t.

“By that time, I will be a US citizen.”

Indeed, securing citizenship remains the beat drumming in the mind of Filipinos, aside from working hard and earning money.

Take Seattle-based Anita Sese-Schon’s case.

In an electronic group, Sese-Schon typed of her awareness of dual citizenship which, if Filipinos here avail of it, will make them eligible to vote.

Swearing as a dual citizen was a side trip to her San Francisco trip last August for a reunion with friends.

Unintentionally forgotten was signing up for overseas voting.

Good thing the Manila-headquartered Commission on Elections moved the registration deadline of August 31 forward two months.

But Sese-Schon said she is “not crazy” to spend another $200 airfare to go back here: personal appearance at the Consulate is required for those registering.

San Jose residents and naturalized US citizens Cecilia Soriano and Celso Costelo –their real names– just heard about overseas voting through the OFW Journalism Consortium.

Costelo said he suspects Filipinos in Santa Clara county (southern part of the Bay Area here) are largely blank about it.


Distance between us

SOCIOLOGIST Peter Chua of San Jose State University points to the Filipinos’ distances from the “nearest” diplomatic office and low awareness about overseas voting as reasons for the “low” turnout in the US of eligible voters.

The turnout is also not about “complete apathy to the homeland,” Chua said.

Soriano, an executive assistant at Cisco Systems, believes, too.

“I am still concerned about the Philippines, and there are many of us who still want to be a part of [overseas voting].”

However, Chua said there are others who cringe at the image of their home country carried in the news or in the back of the minds of those who came here.

“It is just that many Filipinos are turned off with the economic situation and the corruption back home,” Chua said.

Even Vice Consul Anthony Mandap is dissatisfied.

“You can never be proud with having only this number of registrants when there are over-300,000 Filipinos here in San Francisco alone.”

But his hands are tied: there is no precise data on the number of Filipino citizens here, much less those who have been naturalized.

Hence, the numbers count on the qualified voter remains a chimera.

Mandap said the key to find that out is if a voter “is a Filipino”.

Determining who that is from among the estimated 2,586,508 Philippine- and US-born Filipinos here “is hard,” Mandap added.

In San Francisco, the ballpark figure to reach “success” in the registration is 75,000, Mandap said.

Philippine government data showed there are 2,326,675 permanent residents (including naturalized Filipinos), 111,835 temporary workers, and the rest as other types of migrants in the US. Some 1,369,070 Filipinos were born in the Philippines, says US Census 2000 data cited by the Migration Policy Institute in Washington, DC.


Law blow

WORLDWIDE, some 142,015 have registered for the 2007 elections, reflecting an estimated 501,312 Filipinos abroad qualified for the overseas vote.

From the 2006 registrants, 39,223 registered at the Ninoy Aquino International Airport while 47,699 signed up at the offices of the Philippine Overseas Employment Administration (POEA). Both groups of registrants include Filipinos who have yet to go abroad for the first time.

For one to be qualified, he or she must be a Filipino citizen or a dual citizen, provisions of Republic Act 9189 (Overseas Voting Act) wrote.

However, overseas voting officials told the Consortium RA 9189 is also partly the reason for inability to pin down the precise number of Filipinos in the US eligible to vote in Philippine elections.

Likewise, Chua thinks RA 9189 contains a provision where permanent residents who registered will see their US stay “in danger”.

He cites the provision where permanent residents must sign an affidavit of intent “to resume actual physical presence in the Philippines not later than three years from approval of their application for registration, and (they should have not) applied for citizenship in another country”.

Thus, those who registered in 2003 for the 2004 elections should be in the Philippines right now resuming residency.

“[That] is crazy,” Victor Barrios, president of the advocacy group Global Filipinos, said.

Indeed, aside from the cost of flying to and from the Philippines, most Filipinos here are more focused on their jobs with some required to file vacation leaves in advance.

That’s why Barrios said the ongoing amendments to the law should “eliminate the affidavit for immigrants to return, consistent with the spirit of the Supreme Court ruling on the residency requirement for dual citizens”.

For elderly people like Roberta dela Rama, however, coming home to her native San Carlos City in Negros Occidental is not a problem.

And she’s giddy with excitement of her trip home next year, she said.

Despite knowing about overseas voting on deadline day, Roberta signed up “to exercise her right to vote”.

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