POSTSCRIPT / November 6, 2001 / Tuesday


Philippine STAR Columnist

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Filipinos abroad press drive for voting rights

SHOOTING IN THE DARK: The blackout that crippled most of Luzon the other day should jolt most of us into asking some questions as we grope in the dark.

For instance, with the National Power Corp. refusing to obey the law requiring it to insure its $6-billion assets with the Government Service Insurance System, who will now pay for the damage wrought on its property by the massive power shutdown?

How can Napocor president Jesus Alcordo sleep with valuable property under his care left uninsured?

Won’t President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo ignore her financial advisers this time and tell Alcordo to just gloss over the commission (reportedly a whopping $2-$5 million!), follow the law, and insure Napocor assets without further delay?

After dabbling in do-it-yourself insurance brokering and being overtaken by the soaring rates triggered by the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, Alcordo might faint when he is told the prohibitive cost of insurance at this time.

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SUAL — WEAKEST LINK?: Another question: Who will investigate this favored Mirant power plant in Sual, Pangasinan, that was reported as the starting point, again, of the Luzon blackout? The Sual plant was also the culprit when power throughout Luzon went pfft in December 1999.

When then President Ramos was granted emergency powers to solve the acute electricity shortage during his term, we thought he would bring in only reliable investors who would be part of the solution and not become the problem.

We thought Mr. Ramos’s businessmen-friends were more interested in generating power than megaprofits. That Sual plant put up at great expense (and presumably great commissions) is proving to be one of the weakest links in the Luzon grid.

Another question, a basic one, is: Are we this vulnerable? And the answer appears to be Yes.

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ABSENTEE VOTING PRESSED: With the 2004 presidential elections discernable on the political horizon, Filipinos working or residing abroad whose number could be a deciding factor in a close electoral fight are again getting official attention.

The Commission on Overseas Filipinos (COF) has said that there are 2.55 million Filipino immigrants, 70 percent of whom live in the United States.

Close to half of Filipino immigrants in the US choose to keep their Filipino citizenship, according to the COF. If we add overstaying Filipinos (TNT, or tago nang tago) who are easily one million, the number of Filipinos in the States who are potential voters in Philippine elections can reach two million.

Overseas Filipino workers are credited with sending some $7 billion to the Philippines each year. About 70 percent of that amount comes from Filipinos in the US.

There are 18 bills in the House of Representatives and 11 in the Senate pertaining to absentee voting, or allowing qualified Filipinos residing abroad to vote in national elections in the home country.

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SENATE FOOT-DRAGGING: But advocates of voting rights for overseas Filipinos are worried of what they see as the foot-dragging in the Senate on the absentee voting bill. They see the House to be more inclined to consolidate and pass the voting bills.

Ellene Sana of KAKAMMPI, a Manila-based advocacy group representing Filipino migrants, reports that the Senate technical committee working on the subject has expressed concerns that Filipino immigrants may have been required to swear allegiance to a foreign country and may have lost their intent to return (which is often deemed as legally essential to establishing Philippine “residence”).

The Commission on Elections also says that the residency requirement must first be hurdled, as the Constitution provides that voters must be Filipino citizens who are at least 18 years old and “shall have resided in the Philippines for at least one year and in the place wherein they propose to vote for at least six months immediately preceding the election.”

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INTENT TO RETURN: Ren Arrieta, a voting rights advocate based in the US points out that unless a Filipino legal resident in the US decides to take up American citizenship, he is not asked to pledge allegiance to America.

The COF’s data on Filipinos deciding to keep their citizenship also debunk the concern that immigrants may have lost their intent to return.

To help resolve the loss-of-intent-to-return issue, KAKAMMPI proposes that overseas Filipinos be asked to execute affidavits or declarations of intent to return as practiced in Australia and Canada. Ms. Sana reports that the Senate technical group seems open to the idea.

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RESIDENCE vs DOMICILE: The Omnibus Election Code has provisions for absentee voting for government personnel and members of the armed forces and the national police. During elections, these voters are allowed to vote even if they are absent from their place of registration or residence of origin.

Advocates of absentee voting say that for voting purposes, the residency requirement may be interpreted in the context of “domicile” or residence of origin — that is, a Filipino may be a legal resident of the US, but he or she is still domiciled in the Philippines (his or her permanent or fixed home and to which he or she intends to return).

In that case, most overseas Filipinos (even the children of Filipino citizens born overseas) may be able to claim domicile in the Philippines.

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PHYSICAL IMPOSSIBILITY: Advocates said that with regard to the six-month residency requirement immediately preceding the elections, the framers of the Constitution could not have intended it to mean residence by overseas Filipinos in the Philippines.

To provide for the passage of a voting law for Filipinos abroad and to require them to physically reside in the Philippines for at least six months immediately preceding the election is a physical impossibility.

But a law could be crafted such that the requirement could be applied abroad. For example, a registered overseas Filipino voter based in New York could be required to reside in New York six months immediately before the elections if he or she intends to cast his or her absentee vote in New York.

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CONTEXTS EXPLAINED: The contexts in which “residence” is used were explained by Fr. Joaquin Bernas, SJ, during the Constitutional Convention deliberations: “‘(R)esidence’ in this provision refers to two residence qualifications: ‘residence’ in the Philippines and ‘residence’ in the place where he will vote. As far as residence in the Philippines is concerned, the word ‘residence’ means domicile, but as far as residence in the place where he will actually cast his ballot is concerned, the meaning seems to be different. He could have a domicile somewhere else, and yet he is a resident of a place for six months and he is allowed to vote there.”

When Father Bernas asked Commissioner Christian Monsod whether a child of a diplomatic officer who reaches the voting age can register in the Philippines, Monsod replied: “Yes, it is possible that the system will enable that child to comply with the registration requirements in an embassy in the United States and his name is then entered in the official registration book…”

It appears from the discussion that the framers of the 1987 Constitution were contemplating a system of absentee voting that does not require overseas Filipinos to return home to meet any residency requirements.

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HOW U.S. DOES IT: Advocates point out that in the US, the Federal Voting Assistance Program also makes a clear distinction between physical residence and legal residence for voting purposes. However, Americans are less concerned about the intent to return:

“For civilian citizens residing outside the US, your ‘legal state of residence’ for voting purposes is the state you last resided immediately prior to your departure from the US. This right extends to overseas citizens even though they may no longer own property or have other ties to their last state of residence and their intent to return to that state may be uncertain.”

In the last US presidential elections whose final results were delayed, one of the voting blocs counted last were those from absentee voters.

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(First published in the Philippine STAR of November 6, 2001)

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