Senate approves bill extending voter registration

Cecille Suerte Felipe, Edu Punay, Paolo Romero - The Philippine Star
Senate approves bill extending voter registration
People troop to the Commission on Elections office in Quezon City before dawn yesterday to sign up for the 2022 general elections ahead of the Sept. 30 voter registration deadline.
Miguel De Guzman

MANILA, Philippines — The Senate approved on third and final reading a bill that seeks the extension of voter registration by 30 days to prevent the possible disenfranchisement of 12 million voters, after the Commission on Elections (Comelec)’s insistence to stick to the Sept. 30 deadline.

Voting 23-0, senators approved Senate Bill 2408, titled “An Act Extending the Registration of Voters for the 2022 National and Local Elections,” during virtual and physical attendance, and agreed that the Comelec needed to be compelled to move the deadline after its continued rejection of the proposal.

Senate Majority Leader Juan Miguel Zubiri, principal author, said the Senate will adopt the House of Representatives’ version of the bill, which says the last day of registration will be 30 days from effectivity of the proposed measure.

The adoption will allow the two chambers to do away with the bicameral conference to reconcile the bills. The final version will be sent to President Duterte for signature.

In an explanatory note, the senators stressed that almost six months of the registration period were lost due to the various community quarantines imposed because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Zubiri, in his sponsorship speech, said the month-long extension could make a big difference in accommodating people who want to register for the coming elections.

Last Friday, the Senate finance committee, chaired by Sen. Sonny Angara, suspended deliberations on the Comelec’s proposed P26.7-billion budget for 2022 to compel the poll body to extend the voter registration period following massive clamor from the public.

The Senate finance subcommittee on Comelec finance, headed by Sen. Risa Hontiveros, moved to hold in abeyance the approval of the proposed budget after senators’ appeals during the hearing yesterday to extend the Sept. 30 deadline went unheeded.

During the hearing, Comelec Chairman Sheriff Abas apologized for “our polite rejection” of the request to extend the registration period but offered that the poll body will “automatically” extend by a week after Oct. 8 regardless of the outcome of the approved bills in the Senate and the House.

“If we’re to pursue this to its logical conclusion, your resolution setting the Sept. 30 deadline – it is a clear voter suppression regulation. You suppress the right of the voter to vote. That is a cardinal sin in our democratic system of government,” Senate Minority Leader Franklin Drilon told Abas.

“Your reliance on your resolution is out of place, it is even illegal, in my humble opinion, it is in violation of the Constitution and the decision the Supreme Court interpreting our pertinent elections laws,” he said, referring to Republic Act 8189 or the Voter Registration Act, which allows continuing registration of voters until 120 days before the elections.

Section 8 of RA 8189 says, “The personal filing of application of registration of voters shall be conducted daily in the office of the Election Officer during regular office hours. No registration shall, however, be conducted during the period starting 120 days before a regular election and 90 days before a special election.”

Senators have long been suspicious of the Comelec’s strong refusal to extend registration, given that the poll body in three previous elections set the deadline on Oct. 31.

Hontiveros observed that it was ironic that it was the Comelec that would be engaged in voter suppression.

Abas stressed the poll body was really pressed for time and has an “immovable” period of Dec. 1 to 15 to give time to encode all the data into the vote counting machines and January would be reserved for the printing of ballots.

Prior to these, there would have be a consolidation of all registrants to screen for double or multiple registrations and the local election offices would have to prepare precincts for clustering of barangays that would take three weeks at least, Abas said, adding many Comelec officials were hit by COVID-19 and employees were afraid an extension would expose them to further risk.

Pangilinan, however, pointed out that the long lines and the several hours wait of voters – some starting queuing at 3 a.m. – are also putting them at great risk.

House OKs extension

In a related development, congressmen voted unanimously last night to pass on third and final reading House Bill No. 10261 which seeks to extend the voters’ registration with the Comelec by one month from its deadline on Sept. 30.

A total of 193 congressmen present during the hybrid session voted in favor of the measure pushed by Speaker Lord Allan Velasco, Majority Leader Martin Romualdez and Minority Leader Joseph Paduano.

The House plenary passed the bill after approving it on second reading last Friday, after amendments during deliberations.

Velasco explained that the move to extend the Sept. 30 deadline for registration by one month is necessary to ensure that every eligible Filipino can vote in the May 2022 elections.

Age of sexual consent

Meanwhile, the Senate also passed on third and final reading yesterday a bill which seeks to raise the age of sexual consent from the current 12 to 16 years old in a bid to protect young people from all forms of sexual exploitation and abuse.

With 22 affirmative votes, no negative vote and one abstention, the chamber approved Senate Bill 2332, or An Act Increasing the Age for Determining Statutory Rape and other Acts of Sexual Abuse and Exploitation to Protect Children.

The bill seeks to amend the Revised Penal Code and Republic Act 7610, also known as the Special Protection of Children Against Abuse, Exploitation and Discrimination Act.

“This is as much a victory for our children as it is a victory for all advocates, civil society organizations, women’s rights groups and concerned parents and individuals who are committed to protect and defend every Filipino child. Today, the Senate has finally and clearly said no to child rape,” said Hontiveros, principal author of the bill.

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