By Dexter Cabalza, VERA Files
Ligaya Patañaga, 81, and her neighbor,Luzviminda Dularte, 75, showed up at the SM City Manila before 7 a.m., eager to vote at one of only four venues in the country designated by the Commission on Elections as accessible polling places (APP).
But at that hour, the mall was letting in early birds like Patañaga and Dularte only through its San Marcelino gate.
There was no lift at that gate. So Patañaga, 81, had to be helped by her neighbor and several police and mall security guards negotiate the 10-step stairs to reach the upper ground floor where the special polling place is located.
That hardly mattered. Patañaga said she still preferred climbing the stairs at the mall than those at her regular precinct at the Araullo Elementary School.
“Noong May elections, kailangan pa naming umakyat sa third floor.Tapos mahirap doon kasi maraming tao, sama-sama kami (In last May elections, we needed to climb up to the third floor of the school. It was more difficult there since the school was overcrowded. They lumped all the voters there),” she said.
Dularte added, “Sanay na kaming umakyat-baba dito kasi dito kami nagsisimba tuwing Linggo (We’re used to climbing the stairs here since we attend Sunday masses here).”
Voting in the APP is more convenient since it is quieter and closer to their residence, the younger of the two senior citizens said.
Comelec Chair Sixto Brillantes Jr, who visited the APP at SM City Manila later in the day, couldn’t agree more. “Dito may accommodations, maganda, malamig, may nakabantay na mga wheelchair (The APP here has made accommodations for PWDs. It’s cool and comfortable, and wheelchairs are on standby),” he said.
The APPs at SM City Manila and three other SM malls—Cebu, Lipa and General Santos—were established to pilot-test how the poll accessibility law, or Republic Act 10366, can be fully implemented in the 2016 elections.
The law requires persons with disabilities (PWDs) and senior citizens to consent to being transferred from their regular precincts to the APPs.
In Monday’s polls, more senior citizens benefited from the move to the mall. A total of 229 voters with disabilities agreed to vote in APPs, but in the end, Comelec’s choice of the four malls meant only four PWDs voting at SM Cebu, three at SM General Santos, three at SM Lipa and none at SM Manila.
Even when SM Manila opened all its gates during regular mall hours at 10 a.m., there were still some problems senior citizens voting there had to hurdle.
The wheelchair lift at the entrance near Natividad Lopez Street was out of order, and mall security guards suggested that voters who had need for assistance better use the car park entrance.
Narciso Arabe, election officer of the 5th district of Manila, said the San Marcelino entrance, despite the stairs senior citizens had to climb, was the most convenient to voters because since it is the closest to the residential area.
He also said that after the deadline to give their consent to be transferred to the APP expired, a number of PWDs and senior citizens were still asking asked Comelec to move them to the new voting center.
“Kaya lang hindi lang naihabol. Hindi kasi sila nakita noong nag-house-to-house (We weren’t able to include them. Comelec personnel didn’t come across them when they went house-to-house to gather their consent),” he said.
At the SM City Manila, 36 out of the 37 senior citizens in the voters’ list cast their votes before the polls closed at 1 p.m., an unusually high voter turnout of 97 percent.Their ballots were transferred to the Araullo Elementary where they would be canvassed along with the ballots from regular precincts later in the day.
If the pilot-testing in the four malls is successful, Brillante said the Comelec will tap other malls in the 2016 elections.
“We can use all other malls all over the country,” he said.