[OPINION] Inclusive elections in May 2019? Let's manage expectations

 PWD photo by Shutterstock. Election photo by Alecs Ongcal/Rappler

The Accessible Polling Place (APP) Law of 2013 mandates the Commission on Elections (Comelec) to establish APPs or polling places that contain facilities and services that will make voting accessible to Persons with Disability (PWD) and Senior Citizen (SC) voters. This could mean the provision of sign language interpreters, braille ballots, audio-capable Vote Counting Machines (VCMs), and assistors.

For the purpose of the May 2019 elections, however, some clarifications are in order.

First, voters with disabilities need to update or indicate in their registration if they want to vote in an APP. Without qualified voters making such a manifestation, the Comelec is not obliged under the law to establish APPs.

Second, PWD and SC voters can expect to vote in either of the following venues in May 2019: regular clustered precincts with priority lanes or emergency APPs. Unfortunately, the Comelec has not yet created APPs as designed by the law since its enactment.

The current alternative voting mechanisms offered by the Comelec will mostly only offer “physical accessibility”. This means that these polling places will only be located at the ground floor and be barrier-free at best. So, if you are blind, deaf, and/or with psychosocial disabilities, a safe assessment is that you will have a more challenging experience than other Voters with Disabilities (VWD) this coming elections.

Further, since EAPPs are only meant as a temporary remedy for voters with mobility impairments who failed to inform Comelec of their disability, voters with disabilities will not find vote counting machines there.

The Comelec Support Staff will collect the ballots of EAPP voters from their original precincts for filling out and the Electoral Board will batch feed them to VCMs at the closing of voting.

The positive? I think that it is remarkable how the Comelec continues to try to reimagine elections by overall trying to enfranchise previously excluded groups like VWDs.

This is indeed a sign of changing times. Before working with Comelec on the APP Law in 2016, as an electoral reform advocate, the Commission seemed like this distant, rigid institution that was uninterested in the issues of the people—the voters—as long as the routine tasks of the bureaucracy were satisfied (i.e. election administration). But celebrating this victory should not stop us from making critical observations.

The challenges? As current strategies stand, we can safely surmise that there will still be many VWDs who might be disenfranchised in May 2019.

First, the physical accessibility of voting centers cannot be 100% guaranteed for the simple reasons that some single-storey public schools in the country are elevated with no ramps, and not all VWDs can be accommodated in clustered precincts nearest to the gate.

This means that some VWDs may still need to wheel or walk themselves across long distances in voting centers.

Second, the deaf can still struggle with voting even with available signages. Even non-deaf voters find it confusing to vote, and will usually ask around. The deaf cannot communicate without sign language interpreters.

Third, the blind will completely surrender their right to ballot secrecy again due to non-availability of braille ballots and appropriate VCMs.

Lastly, voters with psychosocial disabilities may find the throngs of people on Election Day simply unbearable. But per Comelec, this concern will most likely be addressed in the next polls already.

So, why are we in this predicament? Per my conversations with concerned stakeholders, it appears that difficulties in implementing the law generally stem from 4 points. First is the mindset in field election offices that accessibility equates only with physical access. Second is how the Comelec has not yet internalized inclusion as an equal standard of elections as it already does with credibility and fairness. Third is the struggle between segregating and not segregating PWDs with the rest of voters. And fourth is the lack of clear lines of accountability.

Moving forward, certainly the Comelec needs a paradigm shift in conducting elections by foremost making inclusion standards integral to the election system design. This should not be limited to physical accessibility.

The purpose of creating APPs is to allow VWDs to have the complete voting experience– from filling out and feeding their ballots themselves to the VCM.

While non-segregation is ideal, equipping all accessible clustered precincts with disability-support services will require enormous logistical requirements. As such, the Comelec needs to reach out to VWDs to allow them to make informed decisions about how they want to vote and enable the Comelec to strategically manage its resources.

Finally, other government agencies must also chip in. While Comelec is in charge of elections, renovating public school buildings regularly used as voting centers fall under the Departments of Education and Public Works and Highways, and public transportation under the Department of Transportation. (READ: PWDs appeal to Comelec for 'barrier-free' elections)

Overall, government response to access issues must be holistic and decisive, otherwise the same issues will keep resurfacing every 3 years. – Rappler.com

Paula Bianca Lapuz is a Person with Disability who currently serves as a lecturer for Social Science subjects at a university and engages in consultancy work for inclusive development policies. She is presently working with The Asia Foundation to help improve school accessibility in the Philippines. You may reach her via email.