The absentee voting law

Almost everyone recognizes the right to vote of all qualified Filipinos residing abroad.  The 1987 Constitution explicitly instructs Congress to pass a law that will make absentee voting possible.  Sixty-four bills have been filed to give flesh to the constitution’s mandate, and five successive congresses have intermittently debated its provisions. Yet for the last fifteen years, our legislators have failed to pass this law.

What appears at issue is not the right to vote itself, but the details of its implementation.   I suspect that Congress wants to be very sure that defects that seem inherent in our whole electoral system are not reproduced and allowed to further complicate an already problematic process.

There is definitely a need to review the Omnibus Election Code and to ask why so many of its important provisions are not being implemented. But it is not fair to continue denying overseas Filipinos the right to vote just because we do not trust our existing electoral process.  We should not expect a supplementary law like the Absentee Voting Law to perform the more general task of reforming our electoral system.

To postpone giving overseas Filipinos the right to vote until we can find a 100-percent tamper-proof method for registering them and counting their ballots is to place our accumulated distrust in our political culture ahead of our hopes.  It would be like limiting the right of suffrage to those with property on the fear that the propertyless would sell their votes, or to men on the fear that women, having less education, would not know how to exercise this right.  Had we allowed ourselves to be intimidated by these fears, the women and the poor in our country would have remained disenfranchised spectators to our political life.

To demand guarantees against cheating beyond what is reasonable, and on the basis of our own worst expectations about human nature, is to act like caciques reluctantly dispensing rights to ignorant peasants. I am willing to bet, having seen the passion with which overseas Filipino workers groups have campaigned for the passage of the absentee voting bill, that the conduct of the absentee vote will be far more orderly than any election held within the country.  Modern technology has made it much easier than we can imagine to monitor complex processes and track their outcomes.  It has also made it possible for individuals living in different parts of the world to regularly interact with one another and form viable communities.

Yet, to be fair, Congress cannot entirely be blamed for wanting to craft a law that already incorporates the detailed implementing rules and regulation.  The mandate found in Art. V, Sec. 2 of the 1987 Constitution calls for “a system for securing the secrecy and sanctity of the ballots as well as a system of absentee voting by qualified Filipinos abroad.”  This curious phrasing puts the safeguards ahead of the more important provision for the absentee voting right itself.  At once, the formulation alerts one to the risks to which the voting process is exposed when it is not conducted all the way under the watchful presence of electoral officials.

It is amazing to see the inordinate attention given to matters of implementation in a nation’s fundamental law.  I think it is symptomatic of the paranoid way in which we have tended to conduct the business of government.  The laws and policies by which we run our nation’s life seem to be driven less by the need to achieve certain goals than by the concern to prevent their abuse.  An attitude like this is bound to produce an accretion of negatively oriented laws whose main reason for existence is to plug loopholes in existing procedures.

One can almost read, for example, the whole history of cheating in our country between the lines of our massive Omnibus Election Code.  What we have codified here, it seems, is the record of all our previous attempts to cope with the consequences of the misplaced creativity of a few who lived to outsmart the electoral process.  The result of this, as we all know, is a process of electing leaders that is probably the most complex in the world.

Most likely it is this same mind-set that has shaped the legislative debate on the absentee voting bill (AVB).  Our bright and sensitive legislators have been trying to plug not only the loopholes of the existing electoral system but also the ones yet to be conceived in the fertile minds of their colleagues.  This is a tough job even for those firmly committed to the passage of the law.  It will never be completed as long as we are searching for the perfect “system for securing the secrecy and sanctity” of the absentee voters’ ballots.

My suggestion is: Let’s pass the law now and trust instead in our people’s instinct to protect their basic rights even when they have to work with imperfect procedures.  They will evolve their own safeguards in the course of their own practice.  They will invent mechanisms appropriate to the different contexts in which they live. There is every reason to be confident about this.  The enthusiastic campaign for the AVB is creating a global movement of overseas Filipinos who are keenly aware of the problems of our country and assertive of their right to participate in the shaping of its future.

The enfranchisement of more than five million overseas Filipinos will definitely affect the terrain of our political life.  There can be no doubt that the change will be for the better. Theirs is a more demanding constituency.  They think we’re losing time.  They want to see a future that will offer their children hope without having to leave the homeland.


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