Lawmakers up pressure on Comelec amid calls for extended listup
MANILA, Philippines — Senators on Friday deferred discussions on the proposed 2022 budget of the Commission on Elections (Comelec), increasing the pressure on the poll body to reconsider mounting calls to extend the voter registration period amid accusations that imposing its Sept. 30 deadline would be tantamount to “voter suppression.”
Sen. Risa Hontiveros, who presided over the hearing of the Senate finance subcommittee on the Comelec’s proposed P26.7-billion appropriations next year, accepted a motion to put off the budget deliberations until the Comelec en banc could reconvene to discuss several petitions to move the deadline to Oct. 31.
Pressure was also exerted by the House after it approved on second reading on Friday a bill mandating the Comelec to extend the registration beyond Sept. 30.
The bill was filed by Speaker Lord Allan Velasco, Majority Leader Martin Romualdez and Minority Leader Joseph Stephen Paduano.
The Senate on Wednesday approved on second reading a bill for a one-month extension of voter registration.
Comelec Chair Sheriff Abas insisted during the Senate budget hearing that at most, the commission could extend the registration period by a week after the period of filing of certificates of candidacy from Oct. 1 to Oct. 8. A monthlong extension was not realistic in view of some “immovable dates’’ concerning election preparations, he said.
“If it were up to us, we would request that we don’t extend anymore but we have no choice but to comply,” he told the senators.
Abas cited field preparations for the grouping of voters according to precincts and the loading of data to vote-counting machines, as well as health problems experienced by the short-staffed Comelec personnel during the pandemic, with a number of them falling ill with COVID-19.
Abas said Comelec workers might not survive another month of exposure to COVID-19 at voter registration sites.
Time lost to quarantine
As of June 30, the Comelec has registered some 61.1 million voters who are eligible to cast their votes in the 2022 elections, well below the country’s estimated 73 million voting population next year, according to the projections of the Philippine Statistics Authority.
During Friday’s hearing, Senate Minority Leader Franklin Drilon said the Senate was already “bending over backwards” with the monthlong extension, considering that under Republic Act No. 8189, or the Voter’s Registration Act of 1996, the Comelec was obligated to allow “continuing registration of voters” until 120 days before an election.
“If I am to pursue to its logical end your resolution setting Sept. 30 as the deadline, that is a form of voter suppression,” he told Abas.
Drilon said the Comelec’s deadline would effectively disenfranchise voters under circumstances that were beyond their control, considering that they had already lost several weeks of the registration period to quarantine.
“That is a heavy charge,” Hontiveros observed. “How ironic that it is the Comelec itself that is being accused of voter suppression.”
Past polls as example
But Abas argued that the 120-day period cited by Drilon was not mandatory under a Supreme Court ruling, noting that even in past elections such a rule had not been observed to the letter.
But Sen. Francis Pangilinan asked: “Why was it that during the 2013 and 2016 elections, which were also automated, the Comelec could extend the registration period … but now it seems to be so impossible?’’
The House amended House Bill No. 10261 by substitution before approving it via a voice vote.
The substitute measure stated that “the last day of registration of voters for the 2022 national and local elections shall be 30 days after the effectivity of this act.” The original version, which was approved by the House committee on suffrage and electoral reforms also on Friday, stated that the registration will be extended until Oct. 31.
The House must wait for three days before tackling it for third reading approval.
This means that the lower chamber may pass it on final reading by Wednesday, or a day before the Sept. 30 deadline. The Senate is also expected to pass the bill on final reading next week.
Cavite Rep. Elpidio Barzaga Jr. pointed out that extending voter registration was “exhaustively discussed” both in the House and in the Senate.
Albay Rep. Edcel Lagman said a bill extending the voter registration is unnecessary as RA 8189 already provides for this.
“The stalling of the voter’s registration due to the pandemic makes the implementation of RA 8189 more reasonable and critical,” Lagman said, adding that this was upheld by the Supreme Court in Kabataan Partylist versus Comelec for the May 2010 elections.
‘Show of good faith’
He added: “Under the prevailing law, the continuing registration of voters for next year’s elections would be up to January 9, 2022, which is 120 days before the May 9, 2022, regular elections.’’
The voter registration began in January 2020 but strict quarantine measures due to the COVID-19 pandemic halted it several times.
During Friday’s House hearing, Comelec Commissioner Aimee Ferolino said the Comelec en banc will tackle the proposals to extend the registration once more in its next meeting as a “show of good faith.”