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Overseas Voters.

I’ve been avidly following the developments leading to the signing of Republic Act 9189, otherwise known as the Overseas Absentee Voting Act. Senator after senator has passed through San Francisco and Los Angeles, promising passage of the bill, and I couldn’t help but wonder whether this was all a dress rehearsal for future informal campaign stops (and shopping junkets for their respective partners, of course).

Anyhow, the bills have now become a law, signed without much fanfare. But it is testimony, I think, to the government’s reconceptualization of the civic and political role of overseas contract workers. Prior to this, the Administrations’ consistent lip service was the general policy; OCWs were being crowned as “bagong bayani,” or “new heroes,” while they were being farmed out to countries where their rights were barely protected. (The language of nationalism only barely clothes Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo’s latest term, OFIs, or overseas foreign investors — god, the woman has no shame!)

The reasons for the bill should be clear. More than 7 million Filipinos overseas are denied their fundamental political right to vote, despite a constitutional mandate (back in 1987!) to Congress that a voting in absentia law be enacted. And as the International Coalition for Overseas Filipinos’ Voting Rights wrote:

The right to vote in absentia, practiced by more than 40 countries, is not unique to the Philippines. But ours is a necessity made unique by the economic circumstances that compel a sizeable number of our citizenry to seek better opportunities abroad, yet remain politically marginalized, mute and powerless, even as they are hailed at every politically expedient turn as economic saviors for remitting billions of dollars a year.

And if people were still unconvinced, the war cry of “Taxation without representation” would have done fine as well.

The trouble with all of this, however, is the fact that the new law is spectacularly unworkable. And this is not considering the fact that implementation of this would be a logistical nightmare, both for COMELEC and the DFA.

Let me turn to the section that has the Filipino American press all in a tizzy:

SEC. 5. Disqualifications. – The following shall be disqualified from voting under this Act:

1. Those who have lost their Filipino citizenship in accordance with Philippine laws;
2. Those who have expressly renounced their Philippine citizenship and who have pledged allegiance to a foreign country;

This is clear enough, i.e., no dual citizenship.

3. Those who have committed and are convicted in a final judgment by a court or tribunal of an offense punishable by imprisonment of not less than one (1) year…

And that should be clear too.

And now we come to the real whopper:

4. An immigrant or a permanent resident who is recognized as such in the host country; unless he/she executes, upon registration, an affidavit prepared for the purpose by the Commission declaring that he/she shall resume actual physical permanent residence in the Philippines not later than three (3) years from approval of his/her registration under this Act. Such affidavit shall also state that he/she has not applied for citizenship in another country. Failure to return shall be cause for the removal of the name of the immigrant or permanent resident from the National Registry of Absentee Voters and his/her permanent disqualification to vote in absentia.

Got that? Such an affidavit, of course, would be totally unenforceable, if not entirely unfeasible. If the voter does not return to the Philippines permanently, does the vote get nullified? Can a congressperson be recalled if a sufficient number of overseas voters do not return after three years? And who, exactly, will be monitoring whether these overseas voters actually return? Customs? (It’s the “actual physical permanent residence” that should bother those in the Middle East, or those working as domestic helpers everywhere else; does this mean they can’t reapply for another contract?)

This is why the folks in the Filipino American press are shaking their heads in disbelief; the main difference between Filipinos in Abu Dhabi and Singapore and Hong Kong and Rome and Filipinos in Daly City and Modesto and West Covina and Queens and Hialeah and Colorado are that those in the United States can, and usually, stay there.

And I present, as an afterthought, the last disqualification, or what would disqualify any of the senators or congresspeople who dreamed this up:

5. Any citizen of the Philippines abroad previously declared insane or incompetent by competent authority in the Philippines or abroad, as verified by the Philippine embassies, consulates or foreign service establishments concerned, unless such competent authority subsequently certifies that such person is no longer insane or incompetent.

But this does raise a fundamental question about the nature of political participation, and civic duty, and living in a country like the United States with relatively liberal naturalization policies (in comparison to other European countries, or Japan, or Middle Eastern countries, or…). Suppose such an affidavit was not required: Could a Filipino with a green card live in Vallejo or Glendale in perpetuity and yet continue to vote, every few years, in the Philippines? How would this affect that person’s political participation in the United States? That is, surely the affidavit, however inane it looks on the surface, was meant to ensure… accountability?

In any case, this seems lost on some Filipinos in the United States. Take, for instance, the latest editorial, dated February 19-25, from the Filipino American newspaper Philippine News:

We agree that granting Filipinos living abroad the right to vote is important. Perhaps more than their countrymen back home, they have a bigger stake in the stability of the Philippines. It is they who have chosen to make the ultimate sacrifice of leaving family and friend to work abroad in hopes of bettering the lot of their loved ones.

(But this is perhaps a slightly different matter for the green card-holder in Southern California, saving up for that SUV and waiting for the day when she or he becomes a citizen, and petitions for the relatives, than it is for that domestic helper in Hong Kong, no?)

And there’s more:

Theoretically, Filipino voters based abroad would have voted a lot more wisely than some of their compatriots, who have a tendency of turning every election into a popularity contest…. An intelligent electorate would have pored through candidates’ qualifications before choosing, and under this premise the Philippines would never have elected a thug as president, which is what happened in ’98.

Nothing like being unaccountable and elitist at the same time.

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