By MARIA FEONA IMPERIAL
THE Commission on Elections has unveiled a new plan to make voting more accessible for persons with disabilities (PWDs) and senior citizens: emergency accessible polling places (EAPPs) in the form of makeshift tents.
This after the poll body has canceled voting in malls due to practical and legal restrictions. (See Disability sector dealt another blow as voting in malls canceled)
On May 9, PWDs, senior citizens and heavily pregnant women may choose to vote in an EAPP in case their precinct is located on the higher floors of polling places.
EAPPs are makeshift tents located at the ground floor of multi-level voting centers, intended to make the voting process easier to the vulnerable, whether or not they have signified their intent to vote in an APP, according to Comelec Resolution 10108.
The name is telling, since the move was only finalized 10 days before the elections, without sufficient time to inform intended beneficiaries of the steps they need to take to avail of the service.
Under the law, PWDs and senior citizens are afforded the option to vote in an APP, which has to be located at the ground floor, preferably near the main entrance, free of physical barriers and complete with assistive devices.
Comelec earlier showed the features of an accessible precinct: large blue signage, area for poll watchers, door labels and ramps. (See Comelec unveils mockup accessible precinct)
The EAPP, on the other hand, will be strategically located near the entrance of the voting center, with sufficient signage, ample space and waiting areas, appropriately sized tables or seats with desks and situated near the medical or legal help desks, if any.
EAPPs will be manned by three support staff per voting center, all of whom must have undergone prior training on PWD sensitivity.
The support staff shall explain in “clear and understandable terms” to PWDs and senior citizen voters, upon their arrival, the option and procedures of voting in an EAPP.
This includes not being able to personally insert own ballot into the vote-counting machine (VCM) or read the voter receipt that will be issued.
In case the voter agrees, the support staff shall request for a PWD or senior citizen ID, if available, and assist him or her in identifying the voter’s polling place.
Voters will be asked to fill out a waiver or authorization form, allowing EAPP support staff to retrieve their ballot from their designated polling places on their behalf.
Then, the EAPP support staff may choose to wait until the ballot pick up requests have accumulated.
PWD and senior citizen voters however will not be required to wait for an “unreasonably long time,” and that the support staff will not accumulate more than 10 ballot requests at any given time.
Election inspectors shall prioritize all ballot requests from the EAPP over regular voters.
There is the risk that the voters’ envelopes will be mixed up and delivered to the wrong precincts, said lawyer Rona Ann Caritos, executive director of the Legal Network for Truthful Elections (LENTE).
The Chairman of the Board of Election Inspectors shall then check the authenticity of the waiver by comparing the signature of the voter to the Election Day Computerized Voters List (EDVCL).
Once authenticated, the BEI chairman shall note in the minutes the waiver, and proceed to prepare the ballot and hand it over to the EAPP support staff.
To prevent the mix-up of ballots, the BEI Chairman may write the precinct number outside the envelopes.
If for any reason, the BEI cannot issue a ballot to the voter, the BEI poll clerk or third member shall go down to the EAPP to explain the situation to the PWD or senior citizen voter.
Ballots shall be inspected by EAPP support staff for foreign markings and mutilations before handing them over to the EAPP voters.
The right to ballot secrecy of the PWD or SC voter shall be observed at all times, the resolution read.
The voter, with or without an assistor, shall fill out the ballot, and hand it to the EAPP support staff, who shall place it in a marked envelope.
“The EAPP support staff shall ensure that the ballots are kept safe and protected from third parties until these are delivered to the pertinent BEIs after the close of the EAPPs,” the resolution read.
Once inserted into the corresponding envelope, the EAPP support staff shall apply indelible ink on the right forefinger nail of the PWD or SC voter, or if there be none, to any other nail or suitable body part.
Disability advocate Jessica Magbanua of Alyansa ng may Kapansanang Pinoy (AKAP-Pinoy) said she welcomes the poll body’s EAPP initiative, given that in the 2010 elections some PWDs opt out of voting when they found out their precincts are on the third floor.
It seems, however, that PWDs and senior citizens “need more patience” as it would take time before their ballots may be secured from higher floors, Magbanua said.
Per Comelec, there are 318,013 registered PWD voters and 6,695,251 senior citizen voters. (See Fewer registered PWDs for 2016 elections)
As of April 19, there are 6,211 APPs across the country, but only 768 APPs with above 100 registered voters had been identified by Comelec.
The poll body announced that accessibility audits have been performed in 84 percent of 513 public schools. The Department of Public Works and Highways, however, has not released the status report or list of schools that have been audited.