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COVID-19 is Already Negatively Impacting Election Integrity in the Philippines

The Philippines is scheduled to hold its next general election on May 9, 2022. While there are concerns that the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic may disrupt the election itself, restrictions imposed in response to the pandemic are already threatening the election’s integrity by obstructing the voter registration process.

Despite President Rodrigo Duterte’s heavy-handed response to the pandemic, the Philippines has struggled to control the spread of COVID-19, which remains a serious public health concern in the country. To date, reports demonstrate the healthcare system is vastly overwhelmed, health professionals are at a breaking point, and, at various times, the country has held the highest and second-highest number of coronavirus cases in Southeast Asia, with a total of 1,490,665 cases as of July 16, 2021.

While the health impacts are significant, the state of democracy in the Philippines has also been negatively affected by the pandemic, as restrictions mitigating the spread of disease are preventing people from being able to register to vote. In March 2020, rising COVID-19 cases prompted a six-month pause in voter registration, during which all Commission on Elections (COMELEC) offices across the country were closed. While national voter registration resumed last September, registration in Metro Manila and four neighboring provinces was suspended again from March 29 to May 14, 2021 in response to new lockdown measures. To address the loss of voter registration time, COMELEC increased the number of registration days per week in areas still under quarantine orders and has reopened satellite registration sites that were previously closed in March.

Though these are helpful measures, they have not prevented overflows as Filipinos try to register in advance of the looming deadline. To reduce crowding at their offices, COMELEC implemented an online booking system for voter registration appointments, but given high demand, the limited system has caused offices to quickly reach full capacity. By the first week of June, appointment slots in some locations were already completely booked through September 30, which is also the hard registration deadline. Despite the long shutdown, COMELEC has not extended voter registration, citing a short timeframe between the deadline and election day.

In response to the backlog of applications, COMELEC’s spokesman proposed establishing more satellite voter registration centers. To accompany this, COMELEC also introduced a mobile app that allows voters to complete registration documents on their smartphones. But to register using the app, registrants are required to visit their local COMELEC office twice, first to download the app and second to complete biometrics after submitting the forms. In addition, the app is not available for download in the Metro Manila area and is only compatible with Android smartphones, barring large segments of the population from benefitting from it.

These concerns about voter registration occur in a context of stifled opposition and civil society activity, as civil society organizations ( CSOs) face reduced operational capacity and increased government scrutiny amidst the pandemic. Recent incidents like the Bloody Sunday raids in March, which resulted in the deaths of nine activists, and the April red-tagging of community food pantries as “communist” point to the repressive pre-election environment.

A free and fair electoral process in which all citizens can participate is a key characteristic of democracies. COMELEC’s initiatives to streamline the voter registration process along with the Duterte administration’s firm repudiation of proposals to postpone the election because of the pandemic are encouraging signs of the Philippines’ commitment to preserving election integrity. However, structural barriers threaten to block many Filipinos from having a say in who their leaders will be. As the election approaches, government officials must work promptly with public health authorities and civil society stakeholders to address existing challenges to voting and political participation and to ensure the Philippines is prepared to hold a safe, open, and competitive election.