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Advanced voting for PWDs, senior citizens proposed

A PARTY-LIST lawmaker has filed a bill which seeks to allow an estimated 10 million senior citizens and persons with disabilities (PWDs) to cast their votes within one month before the May 2022 presidential election.

Ang Probinsyano party-list Rep. Ronnie Ong said he filed the measure in anticipation that the coronavirus disease-19 (COVID-19) pandemic would continue to pose health hazards to senior citizens and PWDs up until the 2022 polls.

Ong noted that while the Commission on Election (Comelec) has allowed local and overseas absentee voters to cast their votes about two to eight weeks before election day, early voting is still not allowed for senior citizens and PWDs.

Former Comelec chairman Andres Bautista had proposed in 2017 that senior citizens and PWDs should be allowed to vote at least 7 days before election day, but this did not fly after he resigned amid a swirl of controversies that even prompted the House of Representatives to vote for his impeachment.

Sen. Sonny Angara is also proposing the conduct of early voting for the senior citizens and PWDs seven days before the poll date.

But in filing House Bill (HB) No. 7868, otherwise known as the New Normal of Voting for Senior Citizens and PWDs Act of 2020, Ong noted that the (COVID-19) crisis is looming large to disenfranchise 10 million senior citizens and PWDs because of potential health risks and deny them their constitutional right to suffrage.

“Hence, there is now a very compelling reason to develop a new normal of voting for our senior citizens and PWDs, and protect their right to vote whole promoting their health and safety. This is the objective of the bill,” Ong said.

Ong said that the enactment of the New Normal of Voting Law is a necessary step to ensure that the right of suffrage for senior citizens and PWDs is protected while” promoting their health and safety especially during the occurrence of calamities and health pandemics.”

Ong said he believes that the 2022 elections must still push through and this bill can help allay the public fear.

“A new normal of voting or an early voting system shall be developed where the effective and full participation of these vulnerable sectors are encouraged, the secrecy and sanctity of their ballots upheld and their health and safety are ensured while exercising their right of suffrage,” HB 7868 stated.

Under his proposed law, the following will be implemented, among others:

a) Casting of vote shall be done within thirty (30) days immediately preceding the day of election, the exact period or duration of which shall be determined and published by the COMELEC, taking into consideration the number of voters, who are Senior Citizens and PWDs, and other logistical requirements;

b) Health and safety protocol shall be put in place in designated polling stations and other establishments like waiting areas in accordance with national and international guidelines and best practices to address any existing or imminent calamity or health and safety risk. Measures may include the mandatory use of mask, face shield, and gloves; checking of temperature; safe and regular disinfection or sanitization of hands, items, or place; social distancing; proper ventilation; and adequate training and equipping of the Electoral Board and other authorized officers and representatives of the Comelec;

c) To ensure effective and full participation, the Comelec shall keep and update the record of Senior Citizens and PWDs who are qualified to vote, and conduct an intensive public information campaign;

d) Aside from actual voting in polling stations, the Comelec is also given the authority to explore and develop an early voting system utilizing postal or mail-in voting;

e) Polling stations and other establishments like waiting areas shall fully comply with Republic Act (RA) No. 10366 such that the requirements for accessibility, assistive services and devices, ballot design, among others, are observed;

f) In addition to guaranteeing an accessible public transportation, the Comelec, with the help of the Department of Transportation (DOTr), Department of Interior and Local Government (DILG), the local government units concerned and other stakeholders, shall endeavor to provide free transportation service for Senior Citizens and PWDs to and from polling stations, especially for those who have impaired physical mobility; Provided, That nonpartisanship and healthy and safety protocol are observed; and

g) Guided by its mission to provide clean, honest, fair, credible and orderly elections, the Comelec is also given the authority to implement the early voting system in phases or batches or by area or region, taking into consideration the concentration of voters who are SCs and PWDs, the prevailing state of calamity or pandemic and its accompanying risks to the said vulnerable sectors and the Comelec personnel, poll workers, or authorized representatives, the readiness of the system or technology to be used, and logistical and budgetary requirements.