Sereno chides Comelec

Edu Punay - The Philippine Star

MANILA, Philippines - The voting receipts are mandated by law and the Commission on Elections (Comelec) ignored a non-extendible deadline to argue its case.

Chief Justice Ma. Lourdes Sereno said yesterday that the Comelec has only itself to blame for any complications that may arise from a Supreme Court (SC) ruling requiring the poll body to print vote receipts in the May elections.

In an interview with reporters during the 21st annual convention of the Philippine Women Judges Association (PWJA) at the Manila Hotel, the SC chief admonished the poll body for its failure to answer the petition filed by a group led by former senator Richard Gordon last month.

“When we say that a deadline is non-extendible, it is to be taken seriously… I would like to caution people that when a matter is under litigation before a court, the procedure is to make such communications with the court,” she stressed.

The high court ruling specifically directed the poll body to enable the voter verified paper audit trail (VVPAT) feature of the vote counting machines (VCM).

The SC ruled on the case without the side of the poll body, which failed to submit its comment on the petition.

Sereno said they had valid reason to set a five-day non-extendible deadline for the Comelec to answer the petition.

“We don’t usually give such an order. I hope everyone can understand because we want to be helpful to the success of the 2016 elections and not serve as obstacle to its successful conduct,” she explained.

In the unanimous decision penned by Associate Justice Marvic Leonen, the SC cited the Comelec’s failure to file a comment within the time required by the court.

“It perplexes this court that the Commission on Elections failed to immediately transmit relevant documents to the Office of the Solicitor General (which represents the Comelec in the case) to allow them to respond within the time granted,” read the ruling.

“It is not often that this court requires the filing of a comment within a non-extendable period… We have set aside a lot of our time focusing on election issues and you can see how fast we have been working,” it pointed out.

Merits count

But apart from the failure of the poll body to answer the petition, Sereno stressed the magistrates also considered the merits of the case in rendering the decision.

“I think that the most important part was the law itself. As you can see in the resolution that had been penned by Justice Leonen and unanimously concurred in, we looked at the law and we found that its character is mandatory,” she said.

“So until there is something that is exceptional we have to apply it as a mandatory requirement,” the Chief Justice explained.

In its ruling, the SC said Republic Act 8436 (Automated Election Law) was clear when it said receipt-printing capabilities should be put in place as part of the minimum safeguards provided by law.

“Compliance with the minimum system capabilities entails costs on the state and its taxpayers. If minimum system capabilities are met but not utilized, these will be a waste of resources and an affront to the citizens who paid for these capabilities,” the SC said in its ruling.

The Comelec deactivated the VVPAT for fear that it might be used for vote-buying activities, among other reasons.

But the high court said the poll body could not simply disregard requirements of the law just “to assuage its fears regarding the VVPAT.”

“The Commission on Elections has the power to choose the appropriate procedure in order to enforce the VVPAT requirement under the law, and balance it with the constitutional mandate to secure the secrecy and sanctity of the ballot,” it stressed.

Asked about the possibility of a no-election scenario as warned by the Comelec due to the ruling, Sereno said it would be best for the poll body to just submit its position before the high court.

“We don’t take matters that are aired before the media and that are not properly raised before us,” she explained.   

No-el, no way

Sen. Aquilino Pimentel III, who chairs the Senate electoral reform committee, said there’s no way the Comelec can postpone the May 9 elections.

“If it is wholesale postponement, meaning postponing the voting nationwide, the law does not allow them to do that,” Pimentel told the Usaping Balita forum at the Serye restaurant in Quezon City.

“The law sets the election for May 9. They have to do it or at least start it on 9. They can postpone only in specific areas for valid reasons like terrorism,” he said.

Cagayan de Oro City Rep. Rufus Rodriguez, who was a member of the electoral reform committee in the House, said it’s only Congress that can postpone the elections by enacting a law.

“The Comelec has to go back to Congress and justify a postponement proposal. But I think they can do it as scheduled, with some adjustments,” he said.

For his part, Leyte Rep. Martin Romualdez said the Comelec is “duty bound to obey the Supreme Court ruling.”

“We all know that all these scenarios, including no-el (no election), are unacceptable. So the challenge for the Comelec is to find ways to follow the SC decision,” he said.

Pimentel said the poll body also does not have the authority to go back to manual voting “because the law mandates an automated election.”

“I am dismayed by this talk of possible scenarios like postponement and return to manual voting. They should first try to comply with the SC decision. They have time to do it. They still have two months. If they need help from us in Congress, we are willing to help,” he said.

He said the Comelec should conduct a new time-and-motion study to determine how long the voting process would take with the VCMs printing vote receipts.

“They cannot talk of extending the voting by 10 hours and doing the election in two days without a study. What is your basis for saying that? You have to support it,” he added.

Pimentel said he thinks that printing the vote receipt would take only 10 to 15 seconds.

“The Comelec proposal to show to the voter on the VCM screen the names of the candidates he voted for as a compromise to the vote receipt would be more time consuming,” he said.

“Another voter cannot use the VCM while that is being done. In the case of the vote receipt, the voter steps aside after his receipt is printed to give way to another voter to use the VCM,” he said.

He conceded that the commission could lengthen the voting time and conduct the balloting “for as long as it takes.”

The senator said Comelec’s concern that it would have to procure new ballot boxes or receptacles where the vote receipts would be deposited, as required by the SC, could be addressed by using the poll body’s old metal ballot boxes.

“The can use their old ballot boxes. They do not have to procure the new plastic ballot boxes or receptacles. In fact, even paper boxes would suffice, as long as the receipts are not taken out of the voting precincts to avoid vote buying or vote selling,” he stressed.

Enough time

As for the configuration of the VCM memory cards, Pimentel said the Comelec has enough time to do it.

“In the past, the Comelec had problems with the memory cards two weeks or one week before the election. They were able to remedy it,” he said.

He pointed out that the only valid concern of the poll body, as far as he is concerned, is the procurement of thermal paper for the vote receipts.

“They are correct in saying that they have to follow the Procurement Law. But the law itself gives them flexibility like simplifying the bidding process or resorting to a negotiated procurement,” he stressed.

Sen. Juan Edgardo Angara said he welcomed the SC decision as he urged the Comelec to make the necessary adjustments and for the public to accept them.

“This would further promote transparency, protect the sanctity of votes and boost the confidence of the Filipino people that their votes will be counted properly,” he said.

“I believe the public would accept any adjustments that the Comelec would propose even if it would entail longer voting hours,” he added.

Senate President Franklin Drilon also said he is “strongly” against the Comelec’s possibly postponing the elections.

“I am strongly against the Commission on Elections’ move to hold off the election based on the Supreme Court decision on the printing of receipts,” Drilon said.

“The Comelec cannot postpone on this ground based on existing law. There should not even be talks about postponement. I will block any attempt to postpone the election,” the Senate president said.

Under the Omnibus Election Code, Drilon said postponement is only justified for “serious causes such as violence, terrorism, loss or destruction of election paraphernalia or records, force majeure and other analogous causes of such nature that the holding of a free, orderly and honest election should become impossible in any political subdivision.”

Instead of making speculative public pronouncements, Drilon advised the Comelec to just find ways to comply with the Supreme Court ruling.

“It is premature for the Comelec to make public pronouncements on the postponement of elections because there still is time,” Drilon pointed out.

Constitution clear

For Liberal Party (LP) presidential candidate Manuel Roxas II, the Constitution is clear that the elections cannot be postponed just because of the SC ruling.

“The date (of the elections) has been set. I think it is in the Constitution and it cannot be postponed just like that. I think there’s enough time for the experts of the Supreme Court and the Comelec to resolve that,” Roxas told reporters in an interview in Imus, Cavite.

“I have faith that the Supreme Court and the Comelec have common sense and capability to understand the problem,” he added.

Sen. Ferdinand Marcos Jr., who is running for vice president, also chided the Comelec for raising a “no election” scenario or a postponement of the polls.

“Instead of assuring the public that the May 9 elections will push through, he is sending signals that it may not happen at all,” Marcos said, referring to Comelec Chairman Andres Bautista.

Another vice presidential candidate Sen. Gregorio Honasan II said it would be best for the Comelec to study first the pros and cons of the SC order before filing an appeal.

“There’s nothing wrong with the SC decision and it will benefit not only the electorate but even the Comelec, the country and the Filipino people,” Honasan said.

“We are not a legal or election expert but the SC decision might put credibility to the election results,” he pointed out.

Manila Auxiliary Bishop Broderick Pabillo said the Comelec should not issue threats of a “no election” and blame the SC for it.

“They should have seen this beforehand. We have had two (automated) elections already… They are just trying to make excuses, they took it for granted and now they pin the blame on the people and the Supreme Court,” he said.  – Jess Diaz, Helen Flores, Paolo Romero, Christina Mendez, Alexis Romero, Perseus Echeminada, Evelyn Macairan

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