WASHINGTON, September 12, 2003 (STAR) By Jose Katigbak STAR Washington Bureau  - It’s all over but the final counting.

Filipinos in the United States seem uninterested in voting in next year’s Philippine national elections.

Out of a Commission on Elections (Comelec)-estimated 385,600 eligible voters, only 3,320 have bothered to register to vote at the Philippine embassy in Washington, DC and seven other diplomatic posts, from Aug. 1 to Sept. 9.

By the time the registration period ends on Sept. 30, the total number of registrants in the United States will likely reach only about 5,000, according to embassy poll watchers.

The results elsewhere appear to be equally dismal, causing great concern among Philippine political leaders who pressed for the Overseas Absentee Voting Act.

Foreign Affairs Secretary Blas Ople said the number of overseas Filipinos throughout the world who registered as voters totaled just under 90,000 for the whole of August. Why The Low Turnout?

Filipinos here say their failure to register is not due to disinterest, but to a combination of factors.

Many of them live too far away from the Philippine missions and cannot afford to take time off from work or pay the travel fare.

Also they are reluctant to sign an affidavit pledging to return home within three years, a prerequisite for registration.

"Unless the law is amended to make it easier for everybody to register and vote by mail, no amount of suasion can make the majority of the Filipinos in America exercise their right of suffrage," the Manila Mail said in an editorial.

The Mail, which circulates in the DC-Maryland-Virginia area, said the Philippine Congress was to blame for making it "very difficult for everybody " to participate in the elections.

"And if the turnout is not very encouraging as it is turning out to be, Congress will perhaps vote to repeal the law and blame the failure on the overseas Filipino workers," it warned.

At the halfway stage of the registration, Ambassador to Washington Albert del Rosario tried to stir things up by challenging eligible voters from the 2.5 million-strong Filipino community in the United States to take advantage of the historic opportunity afforded them to vote for the first time ever.

"No matter how distant the voting registration centers may be from their place of work or residence, they should exercise their right to vote and to shape their country’s future as a matter of patriotic duty," he said.

His appeal fell on deaf ears.

Because of the low turnout, the embassy in Washington, which has jurisdiction over Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Maryland, Kentucky, North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee, Virginia, West Virginia and the District of Columbia, has reduced to six the number of staff on Comelec duty over the weekends, a 50 percent cut.

Following is a breakdown of the 385,600 voters estimated by Comelec to be residing within the jurisdiction of the eight diplomatic posts in the United States.

Figures in brackets represent the number of potential voters who have registered from Aug. 1 to Sept. 9, according to Philippine embassy press attaché Patricia Paez.

Washington DC, 20,000 (201); Chicago, 32,000 (355); Los Angeles, 129,000 (96); New York, 75,000 (307); San Francisco, 75,000 (419); Honolulu, 35,000 (61); Agaña, Guam, 9,300 (61) and Saipan, 9,500 (1,820). Phone Brigade

A telephone brigade has been activated to try to convince more overseas Filipinos to register and vote in next year’s national elections.

Secretary Heherson Alvarez, presidential adviser on overseas Filipino communities, said yesterday his office has asked non-government organizations to conduct an awareness and information drive on poll registration among Filipinos abroad.

Modern communication technology such as the Voice Over Internet Protocol (VOIP) will be used by a telephone brigade to try to reach as many Filipinos in various countries to remind them about the need to register for the elections, he added.

Alvarez, who has asked the Comelec to extend the registration period for overseas Filipinos to at least Oct. 7, said his efforts will complement the information drive of the following NGOs:

• Center for Migrant Advocacy (CMA),

• Philippine Migrants Rights Watch (PMRW),

• Global Filipinos,

• OFWNet,

• Apostleship of the Sea (AOS),

• Scalabrini Center,

• Development Action for Women (DAWN),

• Free Migrant Workers (FMW),

• Kaibigan ng OFW,

• Kasapi Congress-Phil, and

• Migrante International.

Alvarez and Ople have expressed alarm over the low turnout of registrants among overseas Filipinos.

Ople said he doubted if the Comelec would extend the registration period because it would entail additional cost and might result in the delay of printing of ballots.

Alvarez lamented that as of this week, the Overseas Absentee Voting Secretariat of the Department of Foreign Affairs reported only a total of 116,520 voters registered in the government’s 81 embassies, three consular offices and three satellite stations all over the world.

This represents some only 6.8 percent of the total estimated target of at least 1.7 million overseas Filipino voters.

The registration period for overseas absentee voters started last Aug. 1 and will end on Sept. 30.

Alvarez had urged overseas Filipinos to perform their "patriotic duty" of availing of absentee voting in next year’s elections.

He said it would be a pity if Republic Act 9189 or the Overseas Absentee Voting Act of 2003 "would go to waste" because of indifference on the part of overseas Filipinos, who are supposed to benefit from the landmark law.

The country’s OFWs will "eventually have to make the ultimate sacrifice and be part of the changing landscape of our country’s democratic history," he added.

Last week, Comelec Chairman Benjamin Abalos rejected Alvarez’s petition seeking to extend the overseas voter’s registration by another 30 days, or until Oct. 30.

In rejecting the petition, Abalos said the Comelec would not have enough time to prepare for the elections once the registration period of overseas Filipinos was extended for one month.

But Alvarez sought a reconsideration of the Comelec decision by filing another petition to extend the registration period to at least until Oct. 7.

"Even as we have intensified our own registration campaign with the use of tri-media, we do strongly feel that every conceivable effort must be exerted to maximize the participation of potential voters in next year’s elections," he said.

"Let us leave no stone unturned in truly empowering every qualified Filipino to vote," he said.

"Even just a seven-day extension of the registration of Filipino voters overseas will be very critical to government’s campaign to include the voices of our OFWs in choosing the country’s national leaders during the May 2004 elections."

Alvarez said the low turnout of overseas registrants and other unexpected circumstances and difficulties of the registration process necessitated that contingencies and adjustments would have to be made now.

Meanwhile, the DFA said in a statement Philippine diplomatic posts abroad are "bracing for a sudden surge" in the number of registrants as the end of the registration period nears.

"A total of 128,462 registration applicants have been accepted by the Posts as of 10 September 2003 from only about 29,051 in the first two weeks of registration," read the statement.

The DFA said the campaign has shifted to high gear with more and more mobile registration services being set up by the embassies and consulates in 116 areas.

"Active representations are also being conducted by the embassy and consulate officials with companies employing OFWs so that they may be allowed to register," read the statement.

"In Amman, Jordan, the Philippine embassy has urged employers to return the passports of their domestic workers and allow them to register."

The DFA said all diplomatic posts have also been instructed to accept the applications of all qualified Filipinos based on valid alternative documents to establish their identities and citizenship.

Other efforts include door-to-door campaigns, setting up of kiosks in churches and social halls, distribution of flyers, publication of posters, mobilization of community associations, work place visitation and registration aboard ships, the DFA added.–With Sammy Santos

Reported by: Sol Jose Vanzi

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