Voiceless and rightless
MARLYN IS a mother of five who does odd jobs in the day and picks and sells garbage at night to make ends meet. She wants nothing but a better future for her children and her children’s children. Last year, in her desire to participate in the 2016 elections, she took a day off and went to one of the satellite registration centers in the city to have her biometrics taken, so she could vote. She only had one ID, issued by an NGO that had been helping her community. Like millions of Filipinos, she does not have a birth certificate in the civil registry of the National Statistics Office. That ID, under her “married” name, was her only proof of identity. Though not legally married, she had long taken on the name of her “husband,” and her name was listed as such in the voter registry. To cut her long story short, she was turned away for not having sufficient documentation, even though she had voted in past elections. Not only did her day go to waste; she also lost her chance to be counted in the choice of our future leaders.
It may be hard to imagine how so many can go through their lives undocumented in their own country, but this is the reality for countless marginalized Filipinos. Valid IDs, though seemingly ubiquitous, are not that easy to come by. Something as basic as a student or employee ID would not be available to a person who had not gone to school and/or whose only work is in the informal economy, and never had any formal employment. Other government IDs, and formal employment itself, may not be that easy to obtain because of another requirement that should be ubiquitous, but is not. Plan International, a children’s development organization, estimates that 970,000 people have been living without birth certificates in the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao alone, and at least 7.5 million nationwide have no birth registration.
This is the all-too-common reality, particularly for those who live in remote areas far from city or town centers. Women who gave birth at home often does not have the means to go to the nearest government office to register their child. Aside from lack of means, other circumstances commonly prevent them from doing so. They may require permission or companions when they leave home. The peace and order situation may make it extremely difficult or virtually impossible to make the trip. Or people may simply not realize the importance of birth registration and opt not to bother with it. The reasons are as varied as the list is long, but the unfortunate truth is that many basic human rights become unavailable with an unfiled birth certificate. And these include the right to take part in shaping one’s future through choice of our leaders or representatives, which is what elections are all about.
While the Commission on Elections’ effort to cleanse the official voters’ list (OVL) is laudable and a necessary part of preventing electoral fraud, there ought to be ways to accommodate people like Marlyn. Canada, for example, has a much longer list of valid documents that can be used as valid IDs, which includes a letter of confirmation of residence signed by an authority trusted by Elections Canada. In the United States, where debates on the photo ID requirement for voting are still ongoing in some states, there are states that allow for voter verification without ID documents, and in lieu of such, permit the filing of affidavits that they are eligible to vote.
The fundamental reason the Comelec is going through these measures to purge the OVL and introduce biometrics is to ensure that every ballot representing every voice is heard, and heard on equal merit with no discrimination. But this issue on identification significantly affects the very people who are already disenfranchised in many other ways. Domestic air travel is an example. While it should now be possible for nearly anyone to fly, thanks to past policy reforms to widen competition in domestic aviation that pushed down ticket prices, not so with Marlyn. She would still need a valid photo ID to be allowed to board a plane, and “valid” normally means a government-issued ID that is current (i.e., not expired). Our granddaughter’s yaya recently had to cancel her much-anticipated trip home to Mindanao after learning that her postal ID issued in her hometown would not be acceptable for boarding her flight, as it had expired. Should this even be a problem for establishing identity? She couldn’t renew her ID at our local post office either, and was told she would have to do it at her place of permanent residence. Again I ask: Is this really necessary? Why not in her actual current place of work, hence residence?
Back to voting: Reducing the chances of cheating via proper voter identification ensures that the will of the many is properly captured by the ballot count. But the argument for relaxing ID requirements is precisely about hearing the will of the many. The resulting voter disenfranchisement on a large scale could be just as bad or even worse than the collective effect of fraudulent voters at the national level. We are obliged to uphold the Philippine Constitution that asserts: “No literacy, property or other substantive requirement shall be imposed on the exercise of suffrage.”
Surely, government can find creative ways to address the plight of millions who are disenfranchised as voters, as consumers, and indeed as citizens. Ours is a supposedly democratic society, and for many like Marlyn, the closest they have to a voice in that democracy is their one vote. This is why it is such a tragedy how for so many of us, this voice is so easily lost through no fault of their own.
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