Voter registration is scheduled to end on Sept. 30. In Makati City, where I reside, registration has been temporarily suspended because of ECQ and MECQ (first and second most stringent levels of quarantine, respectively), and will resume on Sept. 1. That is, if MECQ will not be extended beyond Aug. 31. Or, that the COVID-19 situation will not worsen and send us back to ECQ by next month.
By the first week of October, the Commission on Elections (Comelec) will be accepting certificates of candidacy for the May 9, 2022 elections. For sure, we will not be short of candidates for presidential, vice-presidential, senatorial, congressional and other local positions up for grabs. But, will we have enough voters going to polling centers to constitute a simple majority of qualified voters?
Not that a majority is necessary. Presidential candidates have not won by a majority since 1986, anyway. Plurality of votes were enough to put people in Malacañang in the last 30 years. But, of those qualified to vote by May 2022, how many of them have actually registered? And, of those that would manage to register by the Sept. 30 deadline, how many of them would actually go out and vote on May 9 next year?
COVID-19 has not been kind to us in this regard. Since last year, voter registration was suspended nationwide for almost seven months. The first challenge to ensure meaningful elections in 2022, is how to get more people to register as voters by Sept. 30. The second challenge is how to ensure that registered voters actually vote in May 2022. And, this is without adding to the spread of the COVID-19 virus.
A tall order, if you ask me, considering that COVID-19 and the community transmission of its Delta variant affect not only registrants and voters but also registration and election workers. It is far from Business-As-Usual at Comelec, for sure, as is the case for the rest of the country. And for the large number of people out of work, hungry, or struggling daily, voter registration will not be a priority.
Voter turnout is already expected to be affected by COVID-19, according to Senator Migs Zubiri. In a privilege speech and then a press statement in late July, he said a survey done in June already indicated that if COVID-19 cases would remain high by election day, only 35% of voters would go out and vote; 46% would rather stay home or at work and skip voting; and 19% were undecided about voting.
In Metro Manila and Luzon Island, which are both vote-rich areas, 57% and 50% of survey respondents, respectively, said they would not go out and vote in May 2022 if COVID-19 cases remained high in these areas by then. This will cut voting turnout in these regions by half, which is a significant percentage.
Mind you, the survey was done in June, before the local or community transmission of the Delta variant was confirmed by the Department of Health. Since then, COVID daily case numbers have been hitting all-time highs nationally, and even locally in places like Makati City. And, at this point, there is no telling how things will be by May 2022. Voter turnout will surely take a hit.
Then, there are possible legal if not constitutional questions on the plan of President Rodrigo Duterte to run for vice-president. In this regard, we will have another situation where a sitting president (until June 30, 2022) is also a candidate in the May polls. In 2010, President Arroyo ran for Congress while she was still president. She won and later became Speaker of the House.
President Duterte’s move, however, may be legally questioned in light of the succession rule, which did not necessarily apply in the case of former President Arroyo’s 2010 candidacy for congresswoman. Assuming President Duterte successfully runs for vice-president, and the elected president leaves office for one reason or the other, by law he will succeed as president. To be two-time president is prohibited by law.
To address the COVID-election situation, Senator Zubiri wants Comelec to ensure that COVID-19 protocols would be observed at election sites; to extend the elections by one day to divide the crowd and avoid crowding; and, for the government to speed up vaccinations to reach the 70-million target by the end of 2021. Extending the election by a day, however, requires legislation.
But Comelec is not worried, and was even quoted in a news report as saying that it was “confident of a sizable voter turnout” in May 2022. “This projection is borne out by international experience — most, if not all, elections in other jurisdictions showed a higher-than-average voter turnout — and local experience in the Palawan Plebiscite last March 2021,” Comelec spokesman James Jimenez told media. “In any case, voter turnout is in no way determinative of the validity of electoral exercises.”
Comelec also noted that there were already 60 million voters registered for the 2022 national elections as of June, which is just two million short of its projected 62 million registered voters before the voter registration deadline on Sept. 30. Simply put, at this point, for Comelec, the 2022 elections will happen, and will have more than enough voters to ensure success and credibility.
I am not as confident as Comelec, however, with respect to turnout. I still believe that COVID-19 will be a major factor. In this line, I think all sectors should chime in on how to best approach the situation. We should already be planning for the worst-case scenarios, and should be looking at optimizing the use of technology to ensure the safety of voters. We need initiatives that are backed by data, metrics, science-based empirical research, and technical expertise.
Marvin Tort is a former managing editor of BusinessWorld, and a former chairman of the Philippine Press Council