The Legal Network for Truthful Elections (LENTE), an organization dedicated to electoral reform in the country, is urging the Commission on Elections (COMELEC) and other stakeholders to develop safety protocols to deter the coronavirus disease from spreading during the forthcoming local and national elections.

LENTE said in a press release issued Friday, July 23, that elections may be held during the COVID-19 pandemic as shown by the Palawan plebiscite in March 2021, which set the “new normal” for elections.

“Grounded on its experience of monitoring and observation of the Palawan Plebiscite, LENTE, through an Omnibus Code of Conduct and a policy paper, has recommendations on reforming the conduct of the upcoming elections,” it said.

The group said health professionals should be entrusted with performing triage at the entrance of polling centers and serving as safety marshals to help in monitoring compliance,

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Voters’ Assistance Desks (VAD) should be staffed, and support personnel should manage foot traffic.

It also recommended creating a reserve pool of Electoral Board Members to avoid understaffing owing to health and security issues. The organization also warned of possible congestion near voter lists and in the outdoor waiting areas.

“The conduct of the Palawan Plebiscite last March 2021 is a clear illustration and suggestion as to how the ‘new normal’ for elections would be. More than a question of should the elections push through then, the question now is how can it be made safer for all its participants and stakeholders,” LENTE said.

The organization of lawyers, paralegals, law students, and volunteers also suggests that prospective voting centers be subjected to safety inspections, audits, and adjustments, similar to the national government’s Safety Seal program.

To minimize sharing and transmission, voters should be issued individual markers on voting day.

LENTE further recommends that the Health Declaration Form (HDF) and the VAD form should be combined to further streamline the triage process.

To improve accessibility, forms and signages should also be translated into English, Filipino, local language and other accessible formats, LENTE said. Then, to promote accountability and to bolster compliance among all stakeholders, violation of health protocols should be included in the election offenses.

“The challenge of moving forward with the elections during a pandemic does not and should not mean a choice between prioritizing the health of the citizens and the health of the nation’s democracy. Indeed, COVID-19 is highly contagious and the health risks are more profound in the context of a lack of access to healthcare and a frail healthcare system such as in the Philippines, however, the right of suffrage of all qualified citizens – an integral aspect of our democracy – cannot be denied,” it stated.

LENTE said the upcoming local and national elections is an opportunity for the COMELEC and other stakeholders to work together to strike a balance between these rights and envisioning democracy in action, ensuring that health concerns are mitigated while the rights of the people to fully and actively engage in the electoral process are protected.

The organization emphasized as well the importance of public communication in ensuring the effectiveness of these protocols, believing that all forms of local media, including radio, television, print, and online platforms, should be fully utilized to improve the reach and substance of the COMELEC’s and individual candidates’ information campaigns.

“As a final note, the Palawan Plebiscite proves that COVID-19 elections are possible but more difficult. The elections are expected to be more expensive than normal; however, the layers of challenges may be addressed by developing practices that balance the health risks and ensure that the democratic standards of credibility, transparency, inclusiveness, and accountability are safeguarded, LENTE said.

“The challenges must be well understood and addressed. The authorities should allow time for continuous dialogue between all stakeholders and the refining of the processes in “the new normal.” Ultimately, the importance should be placed on its people surviving the pandemic and also, the survival of our democracy,” it added.

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is the chief of correspondents of Palawan News. She covers defense, politics, tourism, health, and sports stories. She loves to travel and explore different foods.