Wednesday, September 16, 2009


Like many procrastinators, I waited until the last day to register to vote for the May 2010 Philippine elections and it almost proved costly. When I got to the Philippine Consulate at 8:30 a.m., I was informed by the security guard that it was closed because August 31 is a national holiday in the Philippines.

“National Heroes Day, sir,” the guard explained. “But today is the last day to register,” I protested, somehow unreasonably expecting the modest guard to have some authority to change a government policy.

After I left, I phoned a consular official to express my disappointment. The official informed me that there was a misunderstanding because a consular employee was scheduled to be at the consulate to process our registration applications. When I returned at 10:30 a.m., she was there helping a few registrants with their paper work.

After I completed my application, I expressed concern for the many others who wanted to register, but who were told that the consulate was closed and left. How can they be contacted? Could a special exception be made for them so that they could still register to vote?

While I felt sorry for them, I heaved a sigh of relief that I was finally able to register to vote. It was a long time coming.

I recall the time I returned to the Philippines in March of 1986, for the first time in 15 years, along with a “Freedom Flight” contingent of anti-Marcos activists from the Bay Area. President Cory Aquino personally welcomed us at Malacanang Palace and provided us a tour of the Palace.

When we met with members of Cory’s cabinet, many of whom we knew personally because they had been exiled in the US and had attended our meetings of the Ninoy Aquino Movement (NAM), we discussed what issues we wanted enacted by the Cory government.

I told them that I wanted to see the Cory government push for dual citizenship and for overseas Filipinos to have the right to vote in Philippine elections while living abroad. I was certainly not the first nor the last to raise these issues.

I brought up the fact out that dual citizenship has been adopted by more than 80 countries (more than 100 now) including all of Europe, North America, Central America, South America and many countries in Asia. I said that most countries, including20the US, allow for their citizens to vote abroad and the Philippines should not be an exception.

There was general agreement on the overseas voting issue and the Cory government even included a provision in the 1987 Constitution mandating the Philippine Congress to enact legislation extending the right to vote to overseas Filipinos.

But it took five Congresses, four Presidents, 64 filed absentee voting bills and 16 long years before the Philippine Congress finally passed the Overseas Absentee Voting Act, officially known as Republic Act No. 9189, on February 13, 2003.
A month before the February 2003 vote, I joined a large group of overseas Filipinos who traveled to Manila to personally lobby members of Congress to pass this overseas voting bill. I met with Makati Rep. "Teddy Boy" Locsin Jr., who told me that overseas Filipinos had "abandoned the Philippines" and didn’t deserve the right to vote in Philippine elections. I told him that, on the contrary, it was the Philippine government that had abandoned overseas Filipinos. I reminded Rep. Locsin that overseas Filipinos were remitting about $7B a year (then) to the Philippines, singularly responsible for keeping the Philippine economy from sinking. Now that sum is closer to $17B a year which a World Bank study suggests may actually be double that amount.

After our discussion, Rep. Locsin introduced a compromise provision that broke the logjam in February of 2003 paving the way for passage of the Overseas Voting Absentee Act. One of the provisions of the bill specifically excluded elected officials abroad from being able to vote. As a San Francisco elected official until January of 2009, I was ineligible to register to vote.

In November of 2008, Rep. Locsin met members of the San Francisco Filipino community at the Philippine Consulate to express his disappointment that so few overseas Filipinos had availed of the right to vote in Philippine elections.

I told Rep. Locsin that it was all thanks to him. The compromise provision he inserted in the 2003 bill called for overseas Filipino voters to sign an “Affidavit of Intent to Return” to the Philippines to live there permanently after three years, with criminal penalties if they don’t do so. That “poison pill” provision effectively discouraged hundreds of thousands, perhaps millions, of overseas Filipinos from registering to vote.

Somehow Rep. Locsin saw the light and is now the author of a bill removing that “Affidavit of Intent” provision from the Overseas Voting Absentee Act.

About 500,000 overseas Filipinos registered to vote in both the 2004 and 2007 elections. With 11 million Filipinos now living and working abroad, it was projected that at least 500,000 overseas Filipinos would register to vote for the 2010 elections bringing the total number to over 1M registered overseas voters.

However, as of September 1, 2009, the total number of newly registered overseas voters is just a little over 200,000, far less than half of the projected total. This number would easily double, especially now with the entry of popular Sen. Noynoy Aquino in the presidential race, if the Comelec were to extend the deadline for registration of voters to December 31, 2009.

The main proponent of the move to extend the voter registration period is Sen. Francis "Chiz" Escudero, a likely presidential opponent of Aquino. "There is no legal impediment to Comelec extending the deadline of registration to December,” Sen. Escudero said. "The Comelec, if it wanted to, could make the necessary adjustments should it extend the deadline for registration. Surely, the right of suffrage outweighs its logistical concerns," he added.

Extend the deadline for registration of overseas voters.

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