By Leila B. Salaverria
2:57 pm | Thursday, February 7th, 2013
MANILA, Philippines—Before adjourning for the campaign, Congress approved a bill that would make it easier for overseas Filipinos to cast their vote, and change the way that the country recognizes its voters who are not in the country.
The House of Representatives ratified Wednesday night the amended overseas voting bill, which means it could now be sent to the President for his signature so that it could be enacted into law. The Senate ratified the bicameral report earlier.
Akbayan Rep. Walden Bello, the bill’s author in the House, said the measure will improve the way the country recognizes the role and contribution of overseas Filipinos to nation-building.
The bill will no longer give them the tag “overseas absentee voters” and instead recognize them simply as “overseas voters,” Bello said in a statement. This was an important, emotional matter for the Filipinos abroad, he said.
The bill will also make it easier for immigrants to join the electoral exercise, he said.
The bill would remove the provision in the law that requires Filipino immigrants or permanent residents abroad to execute an affidavit stating that they intend to resume physical permanent residence in the Philippines in three years before they could register as overseas voters.
The new registration rules, however, are expected to be applicable for the 2016 elections because the registration period for the 2013 elections ended last year.
“Removing the return requirement will certainly boost the registration of overseas voters, and will make Philippine democracy more inclusive,” Bello said.
The Akbayan lawmaker also said the removal of the tag “absentee” was an emotional matter for Filipino voters abroad. The term creates an “unnecessary distinction” between overseas Filipinos and those in the country, he said.
“It has this connotation that OFWs and other migrant Filipinos are second-class citizens. It is as if OFWs, by not being in the Philippines, are remiss (in) their duties to their families and to the country, when in fact, working in a foreign country is a major sacrifice on their part to ensure the welfare of their families, and this has consistently served as the saving grace of our economy,” he said.
He added that the label “absentee” should not have been used in the first place, “because we are all Filipinos, wherever we are.”
He also said the bill would allow the Commission on Elections to consider other systems of registration to further make joining the elections an easier endeavor for migrant Filipinos. The election body could put in place innovations such as online registration and voting.
For Akbayan and other organizations for migrant Filipinos, the impending enactment into law of the amended overseas voting bill was a “step forward for democracy,” according to Bello.
“There is no better way to improve Philippine democracy than to broaden the space for people at the margins and ensure that our Bagong Bayani are able to participate in governance by giving them the power to choose their leaders,” he said.
According to him, it was vital to ensure that Filipinos abroad participate in elections so that they could reverse the “political marginalization” they experience.
He noted that some 11 percent of Filipinos are overseas workers who send home about $20 billion each year that helps keep the Philippine economy afloat.
“Meanwhile, they are confronted by discrimination, abuse and social insecurity in their host countries. They struggle for their rights in a foreign land, and often, the government is only able to provide minimum support. That they are unable to exercise their democratic right to vote pushes them into deeper political marginalization,” he said.
“By ensuring their right to vote, our migrant kababayan are able to choose the leaders that they trust, leaders that they can call to account and expect to prioritize their welfare,” he added.
There are 988,384 overseas voters who registered for the 2013 elections, Bello said, citing Comelec figures.
The number represents an improvement in overseas voters compared to the 589,830 who registered for the 2010 elections, although it fell short of the 1 million overseas voters that the poll body targeted.
The Filipino United Network - USA has supported this Bill and endorses it for President Aquino to sign it.