Challenges facing overseas absentee voting in US

By Henni Espinosa, ABS-CBN North America News Bureau

Posted at May 02 2013 04:57 PM | Updated as of May 03 2013 12:57 AM

[Editor’s Note: The first of the two-part Special Report of Balitang America takes an in-depth look at the voting habits of overseas Filipinos living in the United States.]

REDWOOD CITY, California - Two weeks to go before the Philippine midterm elections, overseas Filipinos are encouraged to exercise their political right by participating in the overseas absentee voting. By law, overseas Filipinos are eligible to vote on national positions only.

And some Filipino workers like Amie Flores and Rene Sarmiento already have their picks for Philippine senators.

But even if they’ve picked their bets, both said they will not exercise their right to suffrage, simply because they have no room for it in their lives right now. Both work long hours as full-time caregivers.

“For Filipinos in the US, our priority is work, not voting,” Flores said.

“I have children and grandchildren to support in the Philippines — so they’re my priority,” Sarmiento added.

Carlyn Hernandez moved to the US in her teens and is now a US citizen. She neither sees the need to reclaim her Philippine citizenship nor vote in Philippine elections.

“I just don’t feel as connected like other people. I don’t feel the need to vote,” she said.

It will be a challenge for the Philippine Commission on Elections (COMELEC) to get the people to vote.

In the 2010 Philippine presidential elections, more than 589,000 overseas Filipinos registered to vote. But only 26%, about 153,000 actually voted. In the US, more than 66,000 Filipinos registered. But only 30%, roughly 19,000, actually cast their votes.

This year, the COMELEC expects that only 60% of more than 737,000 registered overseas absentee voters will find the time, or the interest, to cast their ballots.

San Francisco Consul General Marciano Paynor said inconvenience is another reason why many Filipino-Americans choose not to register and vote.

While ballots can now be mailed, eligible voters must first go to Philippine embassies and consulates to register — a hassle especially for those who live far.

“The fact that in order to vote, you have to travel a thousand miles, spend $2,000 just to vote, it’s a no brainer — they will not come,” Paynor said.

The US Census cites that there are close to 3.5 million Filipinos in America, with big populations in California, Hawaii, Illinois, Texas, Washington, New Jersey, New York, Nevada, Florida and Virginia.

But besides the Philippine Embassy in Washington DC, there are only four Philippine Consulates in the mainland, one in Hawaii and another in Guam.

To solve the inaccessibility issue, Philippine consular officials have conducted year-long outreach programs to remote areas, to get people to register.

Despite the challenges, consular officials are confident that this time around, more overseas Filipinos will realize the importance of being politically involved, and hopefully make an effort to get to know the candidates in their homeland.

“Given the technology now, with the internet, there is a way for them to determine the best candidates to vote for,” said Deputy Consul Jaime Ascalon of the Philippine Consulate in San Francisco pointed out.