Overseas Filipino Voters (OFV) Registration Kicks off with Training

of Diplomats and Improved Procedures

by Eric Jude O. Alvia, NAMFREL Secretary General

from NAMFREL Election Monitor Vol.2, No.22

In a move to solve recurring problems in the overseas absentee voting (OAV) system, the two Congress Committees on Suffrage and Electoral Reform and the Commission on Elections held in September a multi-sectoral forum to draw up plans to address the low Overseas Filipino Voter (OFV) registration and declining voter turnout.
Comelec aims for a voter registration turnout of one million for its OAV for the 2013 midterm polls out of the 2.4 million potential voters worldwide. Currently, there are only 351, 273 Filipino voters registered overseas. There were 589,830 total registered overseas voters for the 2010 elections, while there were 504,124 for the 2007 elections. Those who failed to vote for two consecutive elections are automatically deleted from the roster of qualified voters and should register again when registration starts on November 2.

The poll body is looking at several ways of encouraging voter participation abroad. Among the solutions is to provide ease and convenience to OFVs by setting up mobile registration centers to be manned by embassy and consular personnel and implement voter registration using biometric capture. OAV registration through the internet is also being mulled.

Training diplomats as voter registration officers

The Comelec and the Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA) commenced their preparations this October to train foreign posted diplomatic personnel to orient them in voter registration with the use of recently acquired digital capture machine (DCM) system (see Notices of Award).

During the first week of October, personnel from 15 diplomatic posts in South East Asia and South Asia converged in Jakarta, Indonesia for an On-Site Regional OAV Registration Training conducted by the Comelec team of Commissioner and OAV Committee Chair Armando Velasco and Commissioner Augusto Lagman. The training was hosted by the Philippine Embassy in Jakarta represented by Ambassador Ma. Rosario Aguinaldo. Simultaneously, a training was also held in San Francisco, USA with Commissioners Lucenito Tagle and Christian Robert Lim leading the training team.
During the training, Comelec officials distributed to the representatives of the various diplomatic missions the DCM biometric technology equipment to enhance voter registration.

For the second week of October, the Comelec scheduled training for 36 consuls and attaches from 18 diplomatic posts in the Middle East and Africa in Dubai, United Arab Emirates. Commissioner Elias Yusoph and Philippine Consul-General Benito Valeriano opened the OAV Training on the Resumption of Continuing Registration program.

Other teams have similarly trained diplomatic posts in Hong Kong and Milan, Italy. Upcoming schedules include France on October 23 and the United Kingdom on the 26th for an information drive and voters education activity.

Registration schedule moved

As the training progressed, Comelec moved the registration period from the original schedule of October 31 to November 2 since October 31 was declared as a special non-working holiday.
A DFA personnel practicing simulated voter registration
encoding data using the new VCMs in Jakarta.
Applications for registration shall be filed before authorized Comelec representatives at Embassies and Consulates that have jurisdiction over the places they temporarily reside in. Applicants need only to present their valid Philippine passports or Seaman’s Book for seafarers when they register. The OAV registration period will run from November 2, 2011 until October 31, 2012.

Weak information campaign

Despite these efforts, some Filipino migrants' rights groups such as Migrante, expressed doubt that the poll body and the OAV secretariat can start the registration of overseas voters on November 2, given the late training of its election officers. They also exhorted the Comelec and the OAV Secretariat  to conduct a massive information drive and education campaign abroad in preparation for the OAV registration.

Some Philippine posts, particularly in the Middle East, have not yet started an information drive and education campaign. An information drive is needed to raise awareness among OFWs regarding the need to register or validate their previous registration. It pressed the Comelec to utilize its budget intended for dissemination of information on election laws, rules and regulations, and continuing voters' education to attain a higher number of registered voters beyond the one million registrant target.

Low voter registration, much lower turn out

The number of registered OFVs pales in comparison to the close to 11 million Filipino workers abroad.  During last year’s presidential elections, only 153,323 or just 26% voted out of the 589,830 registered overseas Filipinos. This is a far cry from the turnout in 2004 when the OAV was first implemented. A record-high voter turnout of 65% was achieved, where 233,092 out of 359,297 participated in the elections. In 2007 however, turnout plunged to 16% when only 81,732 out of the 503,896 registered voters voted.

During the training, the participants identified the factors negatively affecting voter registration: requirement to execute an Affidavit of Intent to Return; geographical location of voters vis-à-vis the registration centers; apathy; high mobility of overseas Filipinos; limited manpower in embassies and consulates; insufficient information campaign, and incorrect addresses provided by the voters.

Among these factors, the requirement to execute an Affidavit of Intent to Return was singled out as the most significant obstacle to increasing OFV registration.

Other migrant groups and poll watchdogs also cite the following problems that have plagued the OAV implementation: weak voter education campaign; unresolved issues with the several voting methods which resulted in OFVs being unable to exercise their right to vote; the focus on increasing voter registration but no plans on how to increase voter turnout and expanded postal voting without addressing wastage of postal ballots; the certified list of overseas absentee voters (CLOAV) remained inaccurate with seafarers composing the majority of those disenfranchised.

The DFA, which heads the OAV Secretariat, has also cited other factors which contributed to a declining turnout. One major cause would be the mobility of overseas Filipino workers. It cites that workers transfer but fail to inform the Embassies or the Consulates General of their new address.
On the aspect of administering the OAV, Commissioner Velasco identifies the absence of an agency dedicated to handling the  implementation of the OAV as affecting its focus and continuity.

Proposals arrived at to improve registration & turnout

Amendments to the OAV Law

While the problems cited can be addressed by improving processes and procedures, there are those that require the amendment of the Overseas Absentee Voting Act of 2003 (Republic Act No. 9189).

The scrapping of the affidavit of intent to return where Filipinos abroad are required to return to the Philippines three years after they have registered, or otherwise face disenfranchisement and jail time of up to a year is seriously being eyed. The affidavit could be detrimental to their applications for permanent residency or immigrant status in their adoptive country. Filipinos who are permanent residents or immigrants in other countries and who want to register for OAV must first submit a formal written promise to resume residence in the Philippines within three years from approval of their registration.

However, like any previous election preparation, time is not on our side. The amendment should be passed by Congress at least six months before the 2013 elections, in order to give Comelec enough time to embark on an information campaign and encourage more OFVs to register.

Filipinos abroad such as Atty. Rodel Rodis of the US Pinoys for Good Governance (USP4GG) explained that the 2006 Supreme Court decision to enfranchise dual citizens by removing the residence requirement should also extend to permanent residents under the principle of equal protection of the law.

Adopting technology for inclusive, efficient, and secure registration

Other groups are looking at ubi quitous technology such as the internet and social networking.  Conducting internet registration (and possibly voting) to reach Filipinos world-wide is a popular solution.

Victor Barrios of Global Filipino Nation and Tony Villegas of USP4GG recommended registering and voting via internet to save on costs and to address the challenges of high mobility among Filipinos and the physical distance of the embassies and consulates from would-be voters.

They further suggested that registration be made a continuing process even as cut-off dates for particular elections are observed. Any voter registered after the cut-off date for a coming election will not be eligible to vote in that election but in a succeeding election.

Other proposals include using peer and family influence by encouraging their friends and family members to register and vote using Facebook and other social media.

To improve voter turnout, Congress is currently debating on the adoption of an online voting system. A big concern is that sanctity of the ballot might be compromised in internet voting, and that implementers (primarily the Comelec) may not be prepared to rely on technology for this purpose.