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Absentee Voting for Overseas Filipinos

March - October 2002

CONGRESS APPROVES ABSENTEE VOTING BILL ON FINAL READING. The House and Senate have approved on final reading vastly differing versions of an absentee voting bill, landmark legislation that will allow Filipinos residing overseas to vote for the first time in Philippine elections.

Depending on the results of a bicameral conference to reconcile the two versions, the overseas vote will empower an estimated four to 7.5 million Filipinos overseas. "This bill is a perfect gift (to the millions of Filipinos around the world) and is the least we can offer to reciprocate their sacrifices and heroism in helping shore up the country's economy during times of crisis," Speaker Jose de Venecia said. "We made history today. It is a second wind for Philippine politics," crowed opposition Sen. Edgardo Angara who the principal author of the Senate bill.

House Bill 3570 was approved by a vote of 132 to 9 on Monday night. Those who voted against the landmark measure, expected to take effect in 2004, cited the lack of safeguards to prevent fraud. The Senate passed its version Tuesday, with 17 voting for, one against and one abstaining. The Senate version allows overseas Filipinos to vote for president, vice president, senators and party-list representatives.

Under the House bill, qualified Filipinos abroad can vote for president and vice president and in plebiscites. Those qualified to vote are overseas Filipinos who have not renounced Filipino citizenship.

Source: Philippines Daily Inquirer, 23 October 2002

SENATE PASSES BILL ON ABSENTEE VOTING. The Senate last night passed the Absentee Voting Law on second reading, paving the way for the more than seven million Filipinos living and working overseas to vote for the first time in the 2004 presidential election.

With a vote of 14-1, the Senate approved the priority measure that had been certified as urgent by Malacanang. It will be formally approved on third reading on Oct. 21.

The House failed to approve a counterpart bill last night but House leaders said they would be doing so on Tuesday.

Only administration Sen. Joker Arroyo voted against the new law, citing flaws that "could make the law an instrument for cheating." Under Senate Bill 2104, all Filipinos abroad who are at least 18 years old on the day of the election would be allowed to vote for the candidates for President, Vice President, senators and party-list representatives. They will also be allowed to cast their votes in referendums and plebiscites on national issues.

The new law will benefit the estimated three million overseas Filipino workers, more than two million permanent residents, and 1.6 million undocumented Filipinos in foreign countries. Overseas Filipinos (OFs) may register by mail or personally with the embassy or consular office in their places of residence. They may then vote, also by mail or by personally casting their ballot at the nearest Philippine embassy or consular office.

The counting and canvassing of the votes will be done "on-site." An election official assigned to that foreign country is to send the summary of results to Manila for proper tabulation.

Angara said there was much debate on the requirement of "physical presence" for voters who would be allowed to register by mail. But Angara explained that the Constitutional Commission, in mandating that Congress should provide for "a system for absentee voting by qualified Filipinos abroad," had deliberated on the issue and "left it to the discretion of the legislature whether to require physical presence or not." He argued that it would be too burdensome and expensive for the overseas Filipinos to have to return to their hometowns just to register.

The opposition leader also noted that it was "the request of the OFs that the counting and canvassing of the votes be undertaken where they voted." He said the new law would allow even undocumented Filipinos to vote. Angara said that, in the registration and casting of votes, "the Commission on Elections is not required to inquire into the status of the voter."

Arroyo, the lone opposition to the bill, said he was more worried about what the administration would be capable of doing with the new voting law.

Senate Majority Leader Loren Legarda, a co-sponsor of the bill, said the passage of the absentee voting law was "a major breakthrough in efforts by Congress to allow overseas Filipinos to vote from their place of work." She noted that Filipinos abroad are "keenly aware of the political and economic development of the country so they have a stake in shaping the country's future."

Source: Philippines Daily Inquirer, 10 October 2002

OFWs’ petition on absentee voting reaches Philippine Congress. Some 15,000 signatures and 200 letters sent by Filipinos in Saudi Arabia to their local congressmen have been presented to legislators championing the passage of the absentee voting bill (AVB) in the House of Representatives.

The signatures were gathered by the International Coalition for Overseas Filipino Voting Rights (ICOFVR) before and during the public hearings held by a joint committee of the Philippine Congress in Riyadh last March.

Absentee voting advocates were hoping the signature campaign would awaken members of Congress who have been blocking passage of the bill, which would enable overseas Filipinos to exercise their right to vote in Philippine elections while abroad. That right is enshrined in the Philippine Constitution but it needs an enabling law.

For the past 15 years since the constitution took effect, however, Congress has repeatedly given OFWs the runaround.

Just when opposition senators have agreed to support the measure, President Gloria Arroyo and her cohorts in Congress began sitting on it.

Just recently, Sectoral Representative Loretta Ann Rosales and Rep. Apolinario Lozada Jr. of Negros Oriental articulated the disgust of several civil society groups over the non-passage of the bill in the lower house of Congress. Rosales said this seemed close to impossible because the 19 different versions of the bill were authored by 42 different congressmen, plus the bill’s interpellation was being handled by three major committees in the chamber with a membership of 80 congressmen.

“How many of these congressmen are really being heard,” Rosales said during a press conference held by the Philippine Migrants Rights Watch (PMRW) and the International Coalition for Overseas Filipino Voting Rights (ICOFVR). She questioned why the bill, which has been certified by President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo, is not even being discussed.

On the other hand, she said, the Transco bill being pushed by Malacanang was approved in one marathon session a few days before the last session ended. “When the leadership of the House decides to crack the party whip, they can pass the bill,” Rosales noted.

Rosales said that when she asked President Arroyo about the bill, she said “the challenge is yours in the House.”

Lozada said the apparent reason many of his colleagues were rejecting the bill was because it would do away with political dynasties prevalent in local politics. He said people would get elected based on their track records and not for their family names. “They see that once this bill is passed, it can correct some of our political deficiencies,” Lozada said, explaining “they will no longer elect the grandfather, the wife, the parents, the relatives, etc.”

The PMRW, a 10-member coalition of civil society groups working for the protection of the rights of Overseas Filipino Workers, said “we have now reached a point in our advocacy where massive migrant civil action is necessary.” “Legislators should think twice before setting aside, or perhaps shunning, the migrants’ right to vote,” the PMRW said in a statement.

Even the Episcopal Commission for the Pastoral Care of Migrants and Itinerant People under the umbrella organization of the Catholic Bishops Conference of the Philippines (CBCP/ECMI) is beginning to speak out against the solons deemed responsible for inaction on the AVB. “If needed, you can refrain from sending home your remittances,” CBCP/ECMI said in a statement read by Bishop Ramon Arguelles. “They (the legislators) do not care for you nor your families you sadly leave behind. They are just after your dollars.”

by Julie Javellana Santos,
in Arab News, 12 September 2002

Junk lawmakers who blocked absentee voting bill. A Roman Catholic bishop on Tuesday urged his flock to reject at the next elections Philippine legislators he blamed for denying millions of Filipinos working overseas the right to vote.

"Now you know who are the villains and traitors," Bishop Ramon Arguelles said in a statement, telling the families of overseas workers not to vote for the unnamed legislators.

Addressing the overseas workers, Arguelles, who heads a commission for the pastoral care of migrants and itinerant people, said "how can you entrust (congressmen) with the future of your country and of your children?"

"Tell your relatives to junk them" in elections, he added. The next election is scheduled for May 2004.

On Friday, Congress went on recess without passing a bill that would allow Filipinos living abroad to vote in elections. Debate on the bill will continue when Congress resumes session on September 30.

At least three million Filipinos work overseas and four million others are migrants. The money they send back to their relatives at home is a major source of foreign exchange for the cash-strapped country.

Filipinos abroad remitted 6.23 billion dollars through official channels to the Philippines last year.

INQ7.net, 10 September 2002

Solon Wants LEDAC to Tackle OFW Voting Rights. Opposition lawmaker from Mindanao Sen. Aquilino "Nene" Pimentel, Jr. has urged President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo to convene the Legislative Executive Development Advisory Council (LEDAC) to untangle knurled provisions in the long-delayed absentee voting measure in Congress.

Pimentel believes that LEDAC could break the stalemate over the now-controversial bill which the millions of overseas Filipino workers (OFWs) all over the globe are lobbying for its enactment. "Unless President Arroyo does something, I am afraid the fate of (the bill) remains uncertain. Perhaps, she could call for a discussion of the bill in LEDAC where its problematic provisions can be ironed out by leaders of the executive and legislative branches," he said.

Noting that OFWs have grown impatient over the non-passage of the bill, he said this is the right time to muster the LEDAC for a debate on the measure that grants OFWs voting rights starting in the 2004 presidential and senatorial elections, adding the bill has already been delayed for many months. Pimentel added that Senate had already approved the Absentee Voting Act of 2002 and the Upper Chamber is now only awaiting its counterpart measure from the House of Representatives. On Saturday, OFW leaders pinned the blame on House Speaker Jose de Venecia for the Lower Chamber s failure to come out with its own version. But de Venecia denied causing its delay, pointing instead to the opposition in the Lower House for the cause of the long wait. De Venecia had promised to have the bill passed early this year. The President had certified the absentee voting bill as a priority legislation in her administration.

Among the unresolved provisions of the bill are the place for counting of ballots, reenactment of absentee voting law after the 2004 political exercise, and safeguards for cheating. Meanwhile, the government is set to deploy teams of physicians and social workers in Philippine embassies abroad with large concentration of Filipino workers to take care of distressed OFWs. Selected areas for the one-year mission with each team composed of eight doctors and seven social workers are Riyadh, Jeddah, Al-Khobar (all in Saudi Arabia), Abu Dhabi (United Arab Emirates), Kuwait, Singapore, Hong Kong and Tokyo. It was learned that the Manila government has felt the need to respond to the growing number of distressed OFWs for the last five years.

Riyadh Daily, 9 September 2002

OFWs vows to fight for the passage Absentee Voting Bill. Filipino workers in Riyadh, Jeddah and Hong Kong who are pressing for the immediate passage of the absentee voting bill expressed concerns on the Manila officials complain on the high cost of conducting absentee voting for overseas Filipinos.

In a separate meeting with Filipino community leaders in Jeddah and Riyadh, the International Coalition on Overseas Filipinos Voting Rights (ICOFVR) launch Thursday night what they called “Tutukan si Congressman” a letter writing campaign to plead support from their respective Congressmen and pass the bill into law.

The community leaders also commit to write letters to various editors and columnists of newspapers in Manila to drum up awareness campaign to educate their reader son the rights of overseas Filipino to vote and drum up public support of the bill.

Mike Bolos, one of the convenors of ICOFVR-Riyadh, presented updates of the pending in the Philippine Senate and the House of Representatives. While Dr Alfred Ganapin, moderator of e-Lagda, introduced campaign strategies. The meeting of some 60 OFW leaders in Riyadh ended with the signing of petition letter calling for the urgent passage of the absentee-voting bill.

For his part, Eugene Tulalian, president of Kapatiran sa Gitnang Silangan expressed concern that thee Philippine government may no longer pass the bill in time for the national elections in 2004 since the legislators are delaying the completion of the interpellation process of the bill.

“Apparently, the legislators know that the current administration is not prepared to shoulder the cost of the conduct of absentee voting bill,” Tulalian said.

This was echoed by Ramon Bultron, managing director of the Hong Kong based Asia Pacific Mission for Migrants (APMM), who told Saudi Gazette his concerns on why Foreign Affairs Secretary Blas Ople is “making a big fuss about the high cost of conducting absentee voting among overseas Filipinos. “Is he preparing the minds of the electorate that because of this consideration absentee voting might not push through in 2004?” Bultron said.

He said the absentee voting bill was first drafted 15 years ago. “As such, lawmakers, including former Senator Blas Ople himself, should have known the cost by then and have proposed to have it included in the national budget,” Bultron said.

“Instead, the Philippine government shunned the whole bill off as it pours and even increases the budget on its all out war against terrorists. For this year, the bigger chunks of the government’s appropriations for 2002 were highest on the military and police salaries especially of their top officials. The proposed budget for 2003 indicates the same,” Bultron added.

Foreign Affairs Secretary Ople has said in Jakarta last week that the DFA may be facing funding and personnel problems in other Posts such as in Saudi Arabia, where there are over 850,000 Filipinos or in Hong Kong, Italy, Spain and the US where there are also large expatriate Filipino communities.

Ople noted that during talks with Ambassador Ernesto Llamas of the Philippine Embassy in Singapore that the Post would need an initial $1.7 million for the conduct of the elections, including the information campaign. Singapore has over 124,000 Filipinos.

Ople said that even at these conservative estimates of $1.7 million for the information campaign, registration and the actual elections, the 60 embassies and 18 consulates general would demand a total of $132.6 million or 6.630 billion pesos. In addition, the Post will need additional personnel to help embassies and consulate conduct an honest and clean election where the results would have a high credibility.

Bultron said, “The Philippine government allots millions for its all out war while it complains about the cost of ensuring our right to vote. President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo has money to splurge for bombs and guns but scrooges when it comes to spending for overseas workers,” Bultron concluded. In Jeddah, the Thursday meeting of Filipino community leaders to discuss ways of pressing for the passage Rudy Dianalan spearheaded of absentee voting bill, among others.

by Edgar C. Cadano, Saudi Gazette, Riyadh, 24 August 2002

OFWs launch campaign vs solons blocking right to vote. Overseas Filipino Workers (OFWs) launched yesterday a militant campaign to force lawmakers into granting them their right to suffrage.

Philippineupdate.com, an Internet-based group of Filipino professionals based abroad said they would coordinate with OFW families for the use of “boot-out” stickers and banners, directly targeting legislators blocking the passage of a law on absentee voting. They have called the campaign “Talsik,” (Tanggalin ang mga Lintik na Sagabal at Inutil na Kongresista).

“We will also ask business to divest and potential businesses to cancel investment plans in the districts of the most recalcitrant legislators,” the group said.

An email from the group, received by THE MANILA TIMES, said: “Like many of our families and friends back home, we overseas Filipinos are fed up with members of Congress who care more about getting re-elected and filling their pockets than they do about what’s happening to our country. We are particularly appalled that Congress continues to deprive us of our fundamental right to vote. There are an estimated seven million of us overseas Filipinos who are guaranteed by the 1987 Constitution our right to suffrage. It’s been 15 years and yet Congress has not passed the law it was mandated to enact.

We are bitter that after sending more than $7 billion every year to prop up the economy, Congress could not spare enough time to legislate a most basic law that would give meaning to our Filipino citizenship.

We are sick and tired of being called modern-heroes when in reality we are treated like political outcasts.”

The group slammed lawmakers for reneging on commitments to pass the absentee voting bill - before the 1998 polls, then in December 2001, and in June and August of this year.

It slammed Sorsogon Rep. Francis Escudero III for his efforts to further delay passage of the bill. It also rejected Maguindanao Rep. Didagen Dilangalen’s proposal to exclude Filipino immigrants and legal residents, estimated to number 2.55 million. The discriminate provision will render the law useless to practically all Filipinos in the US and Europe, the organization said.

It also rejected Makati Rep. Teodoro Locsin Jr.’s “sunset provision,” which would limit implementation to one election year and then leave the issue of extension to an oversight committee.

The Manila Times (Web), 12 August 2002

ABSENTEE VOTING COULD FACE MAJOR OBSTACLE IN SAUDI ARABIA. The Commission on Elections (Comelec) faces a Herculean task of getting the votes of overseas Filipino workers (OFWs) in Saudi Arabia since the Middle Eastern country’s laws prohibit the holding of elections within its jurisdiction, Comelec chairman Benjamin Abalos admitted.

Saudi Arabia plays host to close to a million OFWs scattered all over the Muslim state, where the law of the land bans such electoral process, whether for local or foreign office, Abalos said.

Although Abalos expressed unflagging support to the absentee voting bill being pushed in Congress primarily by Sen. Edgardo Angara, he warned of the problems Saudi Arabia could bring to the process.

Legislators have been told of the potential bottlenecks and are trying to find solutions, he said.

Abalos admitted he does not have a solution either.

While the Senate impasse raises questions about the legislation passed by the opposition "new majority" last month, the Comelec’s proposed P7.2 billion 2003 budget already included provisions for the preparations of the full implementation of the absentee voting bill.

Manila Times, 1 July 2002

NO CONSULAR FEES FOR 7-MILLION FILIPINO VOTERS OVERSEAS: Filipinos abroad will not have to pay for consular services when they register as absentee voters, Sen. Edgardo Angara said yesterday.

Angara, a principal sponsor of the absentee voting bill, said more than seven million Filipinos overseas will benefit from the free services provided by Philippine embassies and consulates once the measure is passed into law. The senator, who is also chairman of the Senate committee on constitutional amendments, revision of codes and laws and electoral reforms, said embassy officials will be deputized as poll officers so they can help oversee the electoral process.

At least 21 senators have endorsed the bill, which gives Filipino citizens abroad the right to vote.

Philippine Star, 13 May 2002

20 SENATORS BACK ABSENTEE VOTING DEBATES: Twenty senators on Thursday endorsed for plenary debate the proposed absentee voting law, which would allow some 7.4 million overseas Filipino workers to vote in national elections.

In his sponsorship speech, Sen. Edgardo Angara, chair of the committee on constitutional amendments, revision of codes and laws and electoral reforms, said the measure was expected to change the course of Philippine elections. The consolidated version was a product of 11 consultations and public hearings, seven of that were held overseas. Senators crossed party lines in supporting the measure, which had slumbered in Congress since 1987.

Representatives of 14 non-governmental organizations led by the Philippine Migrant Rights Watch and the Overseas Filipino Network were in the Senate gallery as a show of support for the measure.

The salient points of the bill were:

·         All overseas Filipinos who are qualified to vote and have not renounced their Filipino citizenship can vote.

·         Immigrants and green card holders can vote.

·         The absentee voters can vote for president, vice president, senators and party-list representatives. They can also vote on plebiscites and referendums that cover national issues.

·         Onsite counting and canvass of votes.

·         Relaxed identification requirements for undocumented Filipinos.

·         Strict confidentiality on the information filed by those registering as voters.

·         Adequate safeguards shall be provided by the Commission on Elections to ensure the sanctity of the voting process.

·         Deputization of non-governmental organizations, individuals and other organizations as election officers after a strict process of accreditation.

·         Free diplomatic and consular services shall be rendered in connection with the absentee voting process.

·         Involvement of NGOs in the information campaign and the drafting of the law’s implementing rules and regulations.

·         Longer time shall be given to Filipino seafarers to register and vote.

Most of the important provisions were incorporated after the overseas consultations conducted by the bicameral panel of Congress to seven key cities in Asia, Middle East, Europe and the United States.

Angara said that the absentee votes would be financially independent and will become a powerful force in Philippine elections. Villar said the sheer volume of OFWs would make them a potent force that can seriously influence election results. He said that the votes of an estimated 3.5 million OFWs were enough to decide the outcome of national elections.

Philippines Daily Inquirer, 10 May 2002

‘ABSENTEE BILL ENACTED IN 2 MONTHS’: Speaker Jose de Venecia Jr. assured millions of overseas Filipino workers yesterday that the bill that would give them voting rights in national elections would be enacted in two months.

"We have already reached a multi-partisan consensus in the House and the Senate, and Congress would be ready to approve it when it returns to work (on April 15)," he told a group of Filipinos in Athens. De Venecia is in Greece to hold dialogues with OFWs and meet with Greek leaders. He has met with his counterpart, Speaker Apostolus Kaklamanis, who praised Filipinos for being "hardworking and law-abiding workers" in his country. De Venecia said there would be no problem in approving the so-called Absentee Voting Bill as soon as possible since both chambers of Congress and President Arroyo are all for it.

The opposition Laban ng Demokratikong Pilipino led by Sen. Edgardo Angara in the Senate and Minority Leader Carlos Padilla in the House are also for its enactment, he said. In fact, it is Angara and Senate Minority Leader Aquilino Pimentel Jr. and other opposition senators who have led the month-long consultations in Asia, the Middle East, Europe and the United States with OFWs on the measure, he added.

Angara is the principal author of the bill in the Senate. In the House, the chief sponsor and author is Rep. Augusto Syjuco of Iloilo, who chairs the committee on suffrage and electoral reforms. De Venecia said he and Senate President Franklin Drilon are scheduled to meet with the seven member Commission on Elections on April 22 in preparation for the implementation of the Absentee Voting Bill in Filipino communities worldwide.

Close to 30,000 Filipinos are based in Greece, half of them in cruise ships and luxury liners plying the Mediterranean Sea. During the Holy Week, the Speaker and his small delegation that included Makati Rep. Teodoro "Teddyboy" Locsin Jr. were in Italy where they met with Filipino workers there.

Philippine Star, 10 April 2002

ABSENTEE VOTING BILL GETS SUPPORT: The 10 biggest political parties in the country have vowed to help pass the absentee voting bill, a commitment that removes all possible stumbling blocks to its speedy passage, Sen. Edgardo Angara said in Saudi Arabia yesterday.

"I do not know of any other piece of legislation that has the unanimous support of all major political parties," said Angara, who led the bicameral delegation that consulted more than 1,000 Filipino workers in Riyadh on the proposed measure. Angara, president of Laban ng Demokratikong Pilipino (LDP), disclosed among those that expressed support for the bill were Lakas-NUCD, PDP-Laban, Reporma, Nacionalista and Liberal parties.

During the consultation in Riyadh, Angara said a final committee draft on the proposed absentee voting law would incorporate a provision for the on-site counting and canvass of votes, an announcement greeted with cheers and applause by the Filipinos gathered at the Philippine Embassy grounds.

Angara, chairman of the Senate committee on constitutional amendments, revision of codes and laws and electoral reforms, was joined by Senate Minority Leader Aquilino Pimentel Jr. and Senators Vicente Sotto III and Panfilo Lacson, and Representatives Agapito Aquino and Bellaflor Angara-Castillo, in the public consultation — the biggest assembly gathered so far during the overseas hearings. The lawmakers said they recognize the spirit of volunteerism of overseas Filipinos and their commitment to safeguard the sanctity of the ballot.

Echoing a commitment made to overseas workers in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, the senator said Congress would initiate bilateral negotiations to make sure that the roughly 350,000 domestic helpers in the Middle East would be able to vote. Angara said most of these domestic helpers would only be allowed to leave their work sites during their day off, which usually falls either on Thursday or Friday.

Angara gave the assurance that the absentee voting bill would be passed before June 15 as Congress decided to speed up the passage of the proposed measure.

Philippine Star, 18 March 2002


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