Advance voting in the Philippines?

by Jayson V. Sabdilon
NAMFREL Regional Director for Mindanao

from NAMFREL Election Monitor Vol.2, No.15

(NAMFREL volunteers are in Thailand as part of the observation mission delegation of the Asian Network for Free Elections (ANFREL) to the country's July 3 parliamentary election. Mr. Sabdilon is currently in southern Thailand.)

Thailand has successfully conducted its Advance Voting Day on June 26, 2011. The idea of having an advance voting day was made into law for the purpose of giving both local residents and non residents of a province/area the chance to exercise their compulsory duty of voting. Local residents include military men and other government officials of a Changwat (province) who will serve as polling staff or who will be under security details on the actual day of elections. They also include private citizens who have scheduled important business matters on election day. Non-residents on the other hand are those from other provinces (military men, officials on official assignment, businessmen, students and others) who cannot go home to their own towns to vote.

This year’s election turnout was very high for residents at 90% (of those who applied for advance voting) and a total of 2.64 million votes were cast for the advance voting. However, due to probable misunderstanding, only 55.67% of non residents were able to vote. Now this can create a problem come election day. Previous non residents who are now back in their hometowns cannot vote on July 3 if they have not cancelled their application for advance voting. Due to the very short notice this year (note that this year’s election has been hastily scheduled), many may have not cancelled their applications in time. Non-cancelled records are considered active, thus, the Election Commission of Thailand (ECT) assumes that these non-residents retain their statuses as such and will vote in advance voting.

After the advance voting, the Thai books of voters are immediately updated and marked such that those who have already voted cannot vote again on election day. The votes are not counted until election day itself (July 3, 2011). The votes are stored in the administrators’ (police) district offices with CCTV cameras focused and made available to the public for inspection anytime. Votes from the non-residents are turned over to the Post Office personnel, sorted and then sent to the provinces of the voters for storage in the same manner.
It helps very much that the Kingdom of Thailand already has an updated and integrated database of all citizens. The data bank is the same source used for major government functions like taxation, health, education and etc. This of course does not guarantee that the system is perfect. It simply illustrates that the system works well.

This idea of an advance voting is to my analysis a very simple and effective mechanism that encourages the participation of more voters. In a country known for strongly valuing and defending democracy, the Philippines, I believe, will do well to adopt a similar strategy. This will allow the other key players (election administrators aka poll staff and military) to really become focused in their areas and assignments while not sacrificing their chance to vote. The same is also especially true of the thousands of students and business people who still wish to actively participate in the elections but could not. Having started giving the chance to our overseas countrymen, our Commission on Elections (Comelec) should rethink and revise the policies to include advance voting.

However, for this to come to fruition, the Philippine government must first institute the necessary conditions that made it possible for Thailand to implement the mechanism. First and foremost, the implementation of a National ID card becomes more and more practical. It makes the record verification and then integration by government agencies easier and faster. Second is for the Comelec to make sure that the official Lists of Voters are always and immediately updated. One would think that it may be as simple as plugging in with the Civil Registrar’s and National Statistical Office to generate a reliable Voter’s List and yet, the voter’s lists’ correctness has always been suspect every election in the Philippines. The Comelec sometimes even have different versions at the  national and local level.

Another issue that needs to be addressed is having a reliable and trustworthy mechanism for the transport and storage of advance votes cast at least until election day. This is a very big hurdle because Philippine security officials themselves are even linked to partisan
activities, not to mention the absence of simple technological support such as installation of fully working CCTV cameras in all storage

Overall, it can be said that the responsibility of building up such a mechanism for voters are in the hands of the very institutions who
run the elections. When we have an election management body that can plan, implement and secure a mechanism by seriously studying
systems in neighboring countries and engaging in dialogue with civil society and poll watch organizations, we are halfway towards electoral systems reform. This of course must be fully supported and complemented by a government leadership that has the vision and political will to strengthen democratic institutions by passing legislative measures and implementing them without delay. When this is accomplished, it does not take much to encourage the Filipino citizens to responsibly exercise their right to vote in advance.

NAMFREL's note: The Philippine Overseas Absentee Voting Act (Republic Act No. 9189) allows advance absentee voting for Filipino citizens residing or working outside the Philippines. Local absentee voting is also allowed as per Republic Act No. 7166 and Executive Order No. 157 for members of the Armed Forces (AFP), police (PNP), and government personnel on duty on election day. Currently, House Bill No. 4241 allowing advance voting for media personnel, is still pending in Congress.