Sunday, December 6, 2020
 

Elections in the time of pandemic

 

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THE coronavirus disease 2019 (Covid-19) pandemic has kept everyone preoccupied, counting the mounting confirmed cases, recoveries and, sadly, deaths.

The whole country has been on lockdown for at least two months now, putting economic activities to a halt. The end of the government-imposed quarantine is yet uncertain. The public has been advised to adjust to the post-lockdown “new normal.” Top of mind in the new normal is social or physical distancing, frequent handwashing and the mandatory wearing of face masks.

Without a vaccine to beat Covid-19, the new normal condition would prevail in the next few months or perhaps a year or two.

And, if the new normal extends to two years or beyond, it would cover a constitutionally mandated democratic exercise — the 2022 presidential elections.




Some may ask, why think about the 2022 elections when it is two years away?

The simple answer is: the Commission on Elections (Comelec) needs to prepare as early as now.

The Comelec faces the challenge of “Covid-proofing” election-related activities. New rules will be added: physical distancing; the flow of voters controlled so that only a sufficient number is allowed in a particular area; alcohol to be a part of election paraphernalia; and no face mask, no vote, among other measures.

In fact, the poll body has started looking into how the new normal conditions would affect or impact election-related activities and processes such as the voter registration, filing of candidacy, campaigning, voter education, monitoring and observation of the poll body’s preparatory activities by election monitoring organizations; and election-day activities, including voter identity verification at the polling place, voting, vote counting, vote tabulation and consolidation, proclamation of winners, and election dispute resolution.


Crowds build up whenever election activities are held. Take for example voter registration. While the Comelec opens up voter registration for several months prior to an election, the tendency is for would-be voters to troop to the Comelec offices close to the deadline date. Long queues of registrants are a usual sight a couple of weeks before the last day of registration.

On Election Day, voters looking for their assigned voting precincts gather before a board
displaying a map of the voting center. Flipping through pages of the list of voters posted outside the voting precinct, voters check for their names one after another. Having ascertained their voting precinct assignment, voters fall in line waiting for their turn to vote.  Crowds or queues of voters build up as the day progresses.

If the same automated election system (AES) used in the last four national and local elections is used for the 2022 elections, the AES will have to be configured differently. For example, precinct clustering in the 2016 elections was defined for a maximum of 800 voters per voting precinct, with 10 voters allowed inside to vote at any one time. This may have to change. If precinct clustering is limited to 400 voters and a maximum five voters are allowed to vote at any one time, then the Comelec may have to provide for additional voting precincts and additional voting machines.

Or, voting may be held for two days. A change in the law, perhaps?  But scheduling of voters will have to be resorted to. A change in rules?  The voter information sheet (VIS) may come in handy. Aside from informing the voter of his voting precinct assignment, it should also include the schedule when a voter should go to his voting precinct to vote. If the voter misses his schedule, he will have to wait for his turn at the end of the day. The VIS becomes a tool to control the flow of voters and the number of voters at the voting precinct or waiting area. Accurate information is essential and the VIS should be generated early enough and delivery ensured before Election Day.

One problem that arises before Election Day is beyond the Comelec’s capacity to control: the movement of voters and their families on a national scale by land, sea and air. Voters troop back to their hometowns where they are registered to vote.  How can this massive movement of people be managed?

The alternative is, perhaps, a voting technology that will allow remote voting. Would this call for a new law or a change in rules to enable remote voting? Such a technology will be different from the AES used in the last four national and local elections.

Leveraging on technology, voter registration may be digitally transformed. For those who have access to the internet, a system that would enable would-be voters to file their applications online and their visit to a Comelec office scheduled. The Comelec will have to devise a separate system for registrants who do not have access to the internet.

These are but a few ideas to Covid-proof election-related activities.  The Comelec will have to examine and break down each election-related activity to identify in which parts Covid-proofing solutions or alternatives may be introduced, using technology or simply amending the process.

We can expect a spike in the use of social media for campaign purposes, but how will face-to-face campaign activities be done? What rules will govern monitoring of election-related activities? How will the processes that we have been used to change with the introduction of Covid-proofing solutions?

Covid-proofing solutions or alternatives may simply be provided for with new rules. Other alternatives may require a law to implement.  This is why planning for the 2022 elections should start now.

The Comelec can look to the South Korean experience. The Northeast Asian country held its elections in new normal conditions last April 15.



 
 

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