Absentee Voting Bill Agreement Reached; Bicameral Committee Irons out Differences in Senate, House Versions

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Byline: GABRIEL S. MABUTAS

A conference committee finally approved the other night a consolidated Absentee Voting Bill, which would allow Filipinos overseas to vote for candidates vying for national government positions, including partylist seats in Congress, two members of the body from the Senate contingent disclosed yesterday.

Senators Edgardo Angara and Aquilino Pimentel Jr., co-sponsors and strong advocates of the proposed measure, made the announcement although, they said, the approved measure has yet to be signed by all the members of the bicameral committee.

Angara said the signing of the bicameral report, which would endorse the bill for adoption on the floors of both the Senate and the House of Representatives, is scheduled Tuesday next week.

He said the measure has been pending since 1987, in four Congresses, and it is only now that it has reached bicameral committee approval.

Now that the bill has been passed, and is expected to be enacted soon, its cleansing properties should be tested in 2004, he said.

Under the bill, all Filipino citizens abroad would be allowed to cast ballots in favor of their chosen candidates for president, vice president, senators, and party-list representatives. They would not be allowed to participate, however, in plebiscites and referendums.

Included in the coverage of the proposed measure are migrants who execute affidavit that they would resume physical residence in the Philippines not later than three years from the approval of their registration. Those who would vote, but fail to comply later with such requirement would be penalized with imprisonment of not less than a year and permanently disqualified to vote in absentia.

Other salient clauses of the bill provide that:

1. Registration shall be done in person.

2. Documents other than passports may be used in registering as a voter, provided that some mandatory information and personal details are acceptable.

3. The use of campaign materials as well as the limits on campaign spending shall be governed by laws and regulations applicable in the Philippines. Personal campaigning is not allowed.

4. Absentee voters shall personally cast their votes in Philippine embassies and consulates;

5. Voting by mail shall be allowed, but initially in only three pilot countries,, upon approval by the Congressional Oversight Committee.

The draft law provides for a mandatory review of the measure within two years after the 2004 general elections so that proper amendments can be introduced.

De Venecia

House Speaker Jose de Venecia yesterday called the approval of the Absentee Voting Bill by the bicameral conference committee a moral victory of the Filipino people and a major step in protecting the peoples right to vote.

De Venecia, original author of the bill since the last Congress, said he moved for the enfranchisement of 2.7 million immigrants and prevented the disenfranchisement of an estimate 1.5 million overseas Filipino workers (OFWs) in Saudi Arabia and other Arab nations in the Middle East.

The approval of the bill, De Venecia added, could raise to $8 billion the annual remittances from Filipinos working or living abroad.

The final version of the measure, which was hotly debated in the conference committee for days, will be signed on Tuesday by the 23-man contingent from the House and the 11-man continent from the Senate.

De Venecia said President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo promised to sign the bill within 24 hours from its transmittal by the Senate and the House of Representatives.

This is a major step in the electoral process. Overseas Filipinos are finally allowed to vote but under the most stringent conditions to prevent fraud, the speaker said.

De Venecia said he will ask Chairman Benjamin Abalos of the Commission on Elections to immediately draft the implementing rules and regulations in consultation with Labor Secretary Patricia Sto. …