Reforming the Philippine Overseas Absentee Voting Law

Published January 14, 2021, 12:14 AM

by Senator Francis Tolentino


Senator Francis N. Tolentino

The first system of absentee voting was enacted in the United States in 1862, when Wisconsin became the first state to allow absentee voting by Union soldiers during the Civil War. The US gradually enacted laws granting overseas citizens the right to vote in federal elections, and extending the right from military personnel to their families and eventually to American civilians who were overseas for other reasons.

In the Philippines, the 1987 Constitution mandates Congress to enact a system for absentee voting by qualified Filipinos abroad. In 2003, Congress institutionalized absentee voting by enacting RA No. 9189, thus ensuring equal opportunity to millions of qualified Filipino citizens abroad to choose and elect our national leaders. RA No. 10590 amended RA No. 9189 in 2013 by laying down new administrative procedures on overseas voting and registration.

More than 12 million Filipinos live outside the Philippines, with the largest group of overseas Filipinos, estimated at around 3.5 million, living in the US alone. In fact, Filipinos are now the predominant ethnic group in Hawaii. Moreover, the diaspora phenomenon has made the Philippines the world’s leading source of migrant labor. For instance, Filipino seafarers rank first in the number of deployed ratings and officers of ships combined.

According to the Office of Overseas Voting (OOV) in the Comelec, the number of registered overseas voters in the 2019 elections was 1,822,173, but only 336,447 voters actually voted or an 18.46% voter turnout. The perpetually low voter turnout may be attributed to what may be considered a fundamental restriction on overseas voting rights. Under the law, overseas Filipino voters may only vote for presidential, vice-presidential, senatorial, and party-list candidates. They cannot vote for local government officials and district representatives.

Congressional debate records show that the exclusion of certain elective positions from the overseas ballot was propounded to avoid “administrative horror.” Legislators then could not foresee a system where an overseas ballot could accommodate local candidates from different cities or municipalities. The fear was that a comically long ballot would have to be designed to allow for, say, overseas voters from Cagayan Valley, Sulu, or Quezon to vote for their local officials and district representatives.

Though the Supreme Court has yet to rule on this issue, it could be argued that the above restriction is unconstitutional, as it disallows overseas citizens from voting for certain elective positions without any sound and justifiable reason.  When it refers to a system of absentee voting, note that the Constitution never limited the elective positions which could be voted for to those of the president, vice-president, senators, and party-list representatives.

Another important issue is the inadequacy of the existing legal and institutional framework to enfranchise Filipino seafarers. Under existing law and Comelec regulations, seafarers may vote through either personal voting or postal voting, in any post with international seaports. In both cases, they are required to appear personally either to do personal voting or to claim the mail packet at the international post, accomplish the official ballot, and submit it to the election officer, who will then facilitate the postal transmission of the said ballot. No accommodation is made for seafarers who cannot go to Philippine embassies abroad because they are on board a vessel or on the high seas.

In contrast, in the US, all merchant marine members and their spouses or dependents can request a Vote by Mail ballot by mail, fax, or electronic mail. This voting process allowing for the electronic transmission of absentee ballots, such as through a web-based portal, mobile voting app, e-mail, or fax, ensures that the participation in the electoral process of sea-based workers, who cannot go to voting posts on election day.

The lacuna in Philippine law should be addressed by future legislation to fully secure the voting rights of Filipino seafarers. Amendments should contemplate internet-based or other electronic methods of voting and registration so that sea-based overseas absentee voters will be able to conveniently participate in the electoral process without the imposition upon them of additional burdens.