Democratic Elections During Pandemic
In my column last June 16, 2021 entitled “Can elections be meaningful in a pandemic?”, I discussed the imperative for our election officials to learn from the lessons of countries who decided to push through with democratic elections despite the COVID-19 pandemic. I argued that we need to prepare early because there will be significant changes in the way we conduct elections given the need to ensure that electoral processes, from filing to campaigning to actual voting and counting will not become superspreader events and push the country into another surge of COVID-19 infections.
In terms of voting, the one obvious problem would be turnout. Elections are truly democratic when all people are allowed to vote. But the ability of voters to cast their votes will be seriously hampered by restrictions of movement imposed by government lockdowns. The first issue has to do with voters who at the time of election day are infected with the virus and are quarantined either in a hospital or their own house. As of press time, there are 53,665 active COVID-19 cases in the Philippines. If that remains more or less the same during election day then turnout will be an issue especially in local elections which are typically very close. This would have to be considered in the election strategies of political parties and candidates.
We also need to talk about the part of the voting population who are considered as vulnerable to getting viral infection—the elderly and those with comorbidities. In past elections, voting precincts become crowded with long lines of voters waiting for their turn or looking for their names in the voters list. Election day is like a fiesta in our country with supporters of candidates roaming the election areas all day interacting with people. According to an article by Adhy Aman in The Diplomat, South Korea tried to address this problem by setting up “special polling stations where voting officials employed extra safety precautions.” Singapore, on the other hand, reserved the “first four voting hours for the elderly.”
Can these interventions be applied during the 2022 elections? I am certain that the good women and men of the COMELEC are already studying all these potential areas of concern. I only hope that they come up with a plan soon because we need time (some changes might require legislative action) and resources in order to put those up.
Even when we think about the healthy part of the electorate, I am sure that many will have doubts about going to a crowded place in order to cast their votes. The pandemic will almost certainly depress voter turnout. This is also true with overseas voting. In 2019, the voter turnout among Filipino voters overseas was 334,928. In addition to difficulties overseas voters encountered before the pandemic, they would have to contend with movement restrictions in their host country.
In addition, COMELEC needs to balance the need to safely conduct the counting and canvassing of votes and ensuring transparency in the electoral process. Obviously, physical distancing guidelines have to imposed on the watchers of political parties and candidates without limiting their legal rights to monitor the process.
All of these of course will be alleviated by an aggressive vaccination program that hopefully will achieve its inoculation targets soon. As of June 30, a total of 2.7 million Filipinos have been fully vaccinated representing 2.5% of our population. If the target is 70% then these numbers do not look good. But vaccine supplies have been increasing and the government has procured millions of doses this past few months so let us hope that we will be able to immunize millions more by the end of the year.
In other words, vaccination will not just protect our people’s health but it will also revive the strength of our economy and ensure the well-being of our democracy.