By VERA Files
Senior citizens and persons with disabilities became the darlings of the press when they cast their ballots for the first time in SM malls on Monday.
In Batangas, the media fussed over Reymundo Chica and his wife Melanie, both with visual impairment, as they entered SM Lipa, one of the four pilot areas chosen by the Commission on Elections as accessible polling places for this elections.
“Nakakatuwa na para kaming artista kahit isang araw lang (We enjoy being treated like a celebrity even for just a day),” the 37-year-old Reymundo said in jest.
The media reported similar stories nationwide. To PWDs like Melanie, she was happy that for the first time she did not have to force her way through a crowd to vote.
Both have consistently participated in past elections. “Siyempre gusto naming maihalal yung mga kandidato na gusto namin (We want to be able to vote for our choice of leaders)."
Wanting to prepare for the full implementation of the poll accessibility law in the 2016 elections, Comelec chose one barangay in each of the four pilot areas and partnered with SM to use the malls' facilities for 205 senior citizens and PWDs.
Comelec reported a high turnout rate. In SM Manila, 36 of the 37 voters cast their ballots; in SM Lipa, 37 of 44; in SM Cebu, 73 of 75; and in SM General Santos, 59 of 68 voters, or an average turnout rate of 91 percent.
Lipa City election officer Candy Orense said the effort to establish pilot APPs was a success. “We only had three weeks to prepare, and yet all feedback has been positive so far,” she said.
The APPs were created under Comelec Resolution 9797, which also required senior citizens and PWDs to give their consent before they can be transferred from their regular precincts. In all four areas, only 10 PWDs gave their consent, nine of which were able to vote. (See related story: Only 10 PWDs to vote in special polling places)
Comelec Commissioner Grace Padaca, who visited SM Cebu on Monday, said she was grateful to the SM Management. She said she hopes that voting centers will be put up also in gyms and basketball courts in the future, not just in malls.
A couple in Cebu City were as thankful. Julita and Manuel Fontanar, both 70, wore a smile as they voted, saying it's their first time to vote hassle-free in Barangay Mabolo.
“I am so happy to be able to vote without any inconvenience,” Manuel said in Cebuano, “I hope in the next election, the same process will be applied.”
Other senior citizens of Barangay Mabolo tried to vote at the APP but were turned down because they were not on the list. They had to go to their regular polling precincts in Mabolo Elementary School near SM Cebu.
In General Santos, Gloria Rivera and Bartolome Hoyo were also happy with the results. Both were among the 68 senior citizens and PWDs who voted in SM.
“There’s no queuing, it’s not tiring. This is very good for us senior citizens,” said Rivera, recalling that in the previous elections, voting has been difficult for her.
Hoyo praised the Comelec for the chance to vote away from the “maddening crowd inside the public school.” “In my regular precinct during the past elections, the line was very long. The precinct itself is cramped and hot,” he told MindaNews.
In Manila, neighbors Ligaya Patañaga, 81, and Luzviminda Dularte, 75, went to SM Manila early to vote. Even if they had to be helped by security guards to walk up a 10-step stairs to get to the APP, both preferred mall than their 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.
But PWDs from other barangays were not as happy with the APP. Ninety-year-old Haide Solidum, who uses a wheelchair, has been voting in Araullo High School for years. Solidum was excited when she heard the news about the APP, only to find that it was limited to residents of just one barangay.
Solidum would not have been that bothered if Comelec made good on its promise to assign rooms for PWDs like her at the ground floor. To vote, four volunteers carried her to the third floor.
“Dito nga kami assigned parati sa third floor. Sabi ko baka puwedeng sa baba na lang kami (We were always assigned at the third floor. I asked if we could stay at the ground floor),” she said.
Batangas PWD advocate Ronel Del Rio said putting up APPs in “isolated areas” like malls is unnecessary if regular polling precincts are more accessible.
“Schools must be more PWD-friendly. After all, these facilities are also used not just during elections but during emergencies,” he said.
He also said moving from one voting location to another endangers the sanctity of the ballots.
Other members of Disabled People’s Organizations in a September meeting with Padaca said they expressed their apprehension over the creation of APPs, and preferred having PWDs vote in regular polling areas nearer their homes.
Padaca in an interview last week herself said, "There is no point in giving them an opportunity to go to an accessible polling place if their regular precinct is nearer.”
Under the law, Republic Act 10366, Comelec said all election officers must see to it that the designated polling places for PWDs should be located at the ground floor of the voting centers for easy access.
Still there were several reports of PWDs walking up the stairs to get to their precincts.
At Laoag Central School in Ilocos Norte, PWDs and senior citizens of Barangay 19 had to climb 20 steps up to cast their ballots.
In Batasan, Quezon City, a PWD voter who uses an assistive device went up two flights of stairs to vote at President Corazon C. Aquino Elementary School. "Hawak lang ng mahigpit, para hindi mahulog (Hold on tight, so you won’t fall)," said another PWD voter Tomas Nanas, 74, as he held tight to the railings, to get to the fourth floor.
"Boboto ako sa boboto dahil obligasyon ko iyon, kahit mahirap (I will vote even if it’s difficult because it’s my obligation)!" Mario Rabe, 74, who also had to drag himself up to this precinct at the same school.
In other areas like Tarlac, there were express lanes at the ground floor, although some PWDs found it hard to locate their precincts.
Teresita Tuazon, a 60-year-old with post-polio syndrome, arrived early Monday morning at San Vicente Elementary School to vote. But she and her partner, Bonifacio Kilala, who suffered a stroke, could not find their names on the list. It took time before they found the express lane.
Another PWD couple, Amado Guiang and his wife Gloria, had difficulty getting to the school. “It is not easy for me to travel to my precinct but it is my duty to vote...I know my vote is counted. I am hoping the candidate I picked will help us PWDs,” he said.
In Dasmarinas, the pilot APP area last May elections, voting areas for PWDs were still located on school grounds. For senior citizens, a ramp was built leading to the main building of Salawag Elementary School. On election day, however, the ramp was defective.
Some of the voters had difficulty locating their precincts and 63-year-old Rosalio, who has arthritis, had to to climb up the school’s stairs to access her precinct.
“We want to do everything we can to make voting easier for people with special needs,” school principal Berlinda Alkayde said.
Upon entering the school’s main gate, voters were supposed to see a list of clustered precincts where there were PWD voters.
Comelec in May assigned two areas in the city as APPs for PWDs, the first ever in the Philippines’ 118-year electoral history.
But despite laws ensuring accessibility, the midterm elections failed to make polling centers barrier-free for persons with disabilities. (See related story: Polls unfriendly to voters with disabilities)
Of the 362,113 registered voters with disabilities, only 82,000 PWDs, or 23 percent, were able to vote on election day, according to reports.
Kimberly Anne Lorenzo, project director of poll watchdog Legal Network for Truthful Elections, said the lack of PWD-friendly facilities in polling centers led to voter disenfranchisement. –Reports from Mark Pere Madrona, Bong Sarmiento, Lala Ordenes, Dexter Cabalza, Melissa Luz Lopez, Homer Teodoro, Carlo Lorenciana, Mechelle Florita and Leilanie Adriano
(VERA Files is put out by veteran journalists taking a deeper look at current issues. Vera is Latin for “true”.)