The approval of the Overseas Absentee Voting Act (OAV) was a landmark in the Philippine Electoral process, effectively granting an estimated three million overseas Filipinos (seafarers included) the right to choose, for the very first time, the President, Vice President, Senators and Party-list representatives. The OAV set in motion the process of registration, confirmation of voters eligibility, and the development of guidelines for the conduct of the elections in places outside the usual Philippine public school classroom.
The United Kingdom was one of three countries identified by the COMELEC where voting by mail was to be conducted, presumably because of the reliability of the postal system, the inclusion of procedures precluding multiple or proxy voting, and where a system to reception and custody of mailed ballots to the Philippine Embassy was adequate. The other two countries were Canada and Japan. Possibly true, but are Filipinos in these countries ready for voting by post?
Having volunteered to be part of NAMFREL UK -and following a briefing in March with NAMFREL OAV co ordinator, Ching Escaler, I was enthusiastic about checking my name in the official COMELEC voters list, which was on the web. Nandiyan ang pangalan ko...pati na ang aking middle name. Kumpleto.
I was at home when an envelope from the Philippine Embassy in London arrived by registered mail. With the deadline a full month away, I didn't feel too rushed knowing that the OAV time frame for voting was from April 10 to May 10. I don't deny that it was a thrill to receive an envelope I had to sign for, and knowing that it contained a precious ballot, a list of candidates and a voter's ID, it gave me a sense of connection to the millions of other hopeful Pinoys who think, perhaps a tad idealistically, that their votes do make a difference.
On looking through the list of candidates I was dismayed at the line-up, particularly the senators. At least for the President and the VP, one had some inkling of who they were from looking at websites, logging on to the Inquirer and general gossip with other Pinoys in the UK, etc. But such a list of aspirants! The same old tiresome names, the usual suspects, the movie and basketball stars - I turned the page around, half expecting to see other names, 'Wala na bang iba?' No such luck. I could only vote for seven and leave the other five slots blank. On the opposite page was the party-list. This time there were too many choices and, of course, not enough information about what they all stood for or what 'sectors' they represent. I chose one group I was familiar with, and that was that.
OK, so far so good - I made my choices and mailed my ballot a week after. The instructions were straightforward - after you read them a couple of times. But, having voted in person in previous elections, there were none of the visual cues of what to do - nobody else ahead of you to follow - whether it is checking your name in the list of voters, putting your thumb mark, or having the solicitous school teacher separate the ballot at the dotted lines to put each part into separate padlocked boxes.
This time it was totally DIY - affix your signature to the outer envelope, put your thumb mark onto the box at the bottom of the ballot, cut along the dotted line, put your completed ballot into the 'inner envelope', apply the paper seal (provided) to the inner envelope, put the rest of the ballot into the 'outer envelope' and affix another paper seal. Buy a stamp and affix it to the outer envelope. (At least the outer envelope had the address of the Philippine Embassy on it). It did take some time to go through all the instructions and reminders (remember your signature! without it your ballot will be invalidated!), and somehow it didn't match the thrill of trooping to the schoolhouse with its carnival-like atmosphere, watchers hovering around, yelling children, yapping dogs, shifty-eyed persons lurking around, lots and lots of uzi-seros, and a few palms ready to be greased. I miss that atmosphere.
Getting a thumb mark onto the ballot was also puzzling. Where would I get a stamp pad? Our office didn't have any - these went out with typewriters. I tried smearing ball pen ink on my thumb, but it made such a haphazard mark that Jackson Pollock would have been pleased. Fortunately, the Embassy asked for, and was granted, authorisation not to require a thumb mark. But this information I knew because I had meetings with embassy personnel about the role of NAMFREL. What about the close to 3,000 other Pinoy voters in the UK who did not know that this requirement had been waived, and who couldn't be bothered to look for a stamp pad at some stationery shop? The mother of a friend of mine lived near the Philippine Embassy - she went in and sure enough, they still had a stamp pad, so that was it for her.
Fast forward to April 29th - it's 10 days before the last voting day. Of the close to 3,000 envelopes sent out to registered voters in the UK, only about 300 had returned with the votes - a significant number of unopened envelopes (about 200) were returned by the post office because there had been changes of address, or people were not around to receive the mail and they couldn't (or wouldn't) go to the post office to claim it. NAMFREL UK mobilised volunteers to help the over-stretched embassy staff to follow up on the returned envelopes, even going to the extent of conducting registration in London hospitals, and posting notices to remind voters to cast their ballots in time. The Embassy printed notices in the Philippine newspapers with names of voters whose unopened envelopes had been returned. The Embassy is still hopeful, as are many others, thinking that Filipinos tend to wait until the last minute, and therefore a deluge of completed ballots would be arriving on the last day. The systems are in place-the ballot boxes, Special Ballot Reception & Custody Groups, the Special Board of Election Inspectors, and the NAMFREL volunteers have been activated. Sana naman mas maraming balota ang matatanggap, at walang postal strike.....