Re-enfranchising OFWs

I am glad the Commission on Elections (Comelec) re-enfranchised 238,557 overseas Filipino workers (OFWs) and professionals. Earlier this year, it deleted their names from the National Registry of Overseas Absentee Voters for their failure to vote during the last two consecutive elections held in 2007 and 2010. But on March 5, the poll body interpreted the law more liberally, reversed its earlier decision, and allowed our overseas kababayan  to remain on the voters’ list.

Inadequate notice. This welcome reversal was the result of a Comelec hearing last March 1. Ted Laguatan, an eminent Filipino lawyer with extensive practice in San Francisco, California, explained that the Comelec unwittingly wasted—without adequate notice and due process—the hard work put forth by the Global Filipino Diaspora Council (GFDC), which relentlessly campaigned for absentee voting during the last 10 years.

While the Comelec published a notice in two local newspapers and in its website warning that overseas Filipinos who failed to vote during the last two consecutive elections would be delisted unless they filed a formal “manifestation” of their intent to vote in the 2013 elections, such notice was miserably inadequate, so Laguatan argued.

Most overseas Filipinos had very little access to these means of communications and were thus unaware of their imminent disenfranchisement. Due to the inadequate notice, only 29—yes, only 29—overseas Filipinos filed the required manifestations and were thus retained in the list of qualified voters for the 2013 elections.

Other valid reasons. Apart from inadequate notice, there are many reasons why OFWs could not vote during the last two elections. For example, sea-based workers who remitted $4.8 billion to the national treasury last year were out at sea most of the time, sailing on the vessels they were serving. Naturally, they could not vote, as required by the Comelec, in the “original ports” they registered in.

So, also, many Filipinos who are permanent residents of the United States—the green-card holders—were hesitant to vote because they were required by the Comelec to execute an affidavit of their “intent to return” to the Philippines within three years from voting, otherwise their voting registration would be rejected.

Note that by executing such affidavits, they risked not just the revocation of their green cards and permanent residency but also possible prosecution and harsh penalties. Moreover, by voting in two consecutive elections, they would be providing incriminating evidence that they were still abroad and did not return home as they vowed in their affidavits.

Saving the economy. During the same hearing last March 1, another Fil-American lawyer based in San Francisco, Rodel Rodis, reminded Comelec Chair Sixto Brillantes Jr. of his promise during a session of the poll body on Sept. 29, 2011. His promise was that the names of those who did not vote in two consecutive elections would not be cancelled, but would just be moved “to a separate list so that if they come to vote in the May 2013 elections, they would be allowed to vote provided their names were on the separate list.”

I humbly join this advocacy to liberalize the registration and voting requirements for our overseas Filipino voters. The ordinary rules made for locally based electors should not be strictly applied to them because they live in harsh environments that prevent them from adhering to election regulations applicable to locals.

Our OFWs toil diligently in foreign shores, braving loneliness, illness, family separation and extreme weather. In the process, they collectively remitted last year a total of $21.4 billion, up 6.3 percent from the $20.1 billion sent in 2011. They are the single biggest source of foreign currency for our country. Their relatives here used these remittances to buy homes, appliances, motor vehicles, food items, clothing and toys, thereby keeping our vibrant economy the envy of the world.

In the words of Bangko Sentral Governor Amando Tetangco Jr., “The resilience of overseas Filipino remittances continues to support the country’s economic growth and development.”

The top remitters are the Filipinos based in the United States, who sent over $9 billion, constituting 42.6 percent of the total, followed by those in Canada, 9.2 percent; Saudi Arabia, 8.1 percent; United Kingdom, 5 percent; Japan, 4.7 percent; United Arab Emirates, 4.5 percent; and Singapore, 4.1 percent.

Since Filipinos in the United States contribute by far the largest overseas remittances, we who benefit directly and indirectly from them should be more attentive to their plea. The least the Comelec can do is to construe election laws liberally in their favor.

For its part, our Supreme Court has liberally interpreted election laws for US-based Filipinos. For instance, Macalintal vs Comelec (July 10, 2003) held that though physically absent, green-card holders never lost their “domicile of origin” and should thus be allowed to vote, and Nicolas vs. Comelec (Aug. 4, 2006) ruled that dual citizens are not required “to actually establish residence and physically stay in the Philippines first before they can exercise their right to vote.”

Again, congratulations to the GFDC and its gutsy leaders led by Loida Nicolas Lewis, chair; Rodel Rodis, president; Lolita Farmer, VP Australia; Gene Alcantara, VP Europe; Daisy Mandap, VP China and Hong Kong; Celia Lamkin of Northern Marianas, secretary; and Laguatan, legal counsel. It has 27 board members from all over the globe.

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