‘No bio, no boto’ policy upheld
The Commission on Elections (Comelec) may now proceed with preparations for next year’s general elections, after the Supreme Court threw out a challenge to the poll watchdog’s “no bio, no boto” policy on Wednesday.
Acting on a petition brought by the Kabataan party-list group, the Supreme Court temporarily stopped the implementation of the policy on Dec. 1, but lifted the order on Wednesday on the Comelec’s appeal.
Comelec Chair Andres Bautista said the commission was happy that the Supreme Court understood its position in implementing the policy, which is anchored on the Mandatory Biometrics Registration Law of 2013.
The policy aims to remove fraudulent registrants from the voter rolls.
A court battle would have delayed progress in the Comelec’s preparation of the final list of voters and polling precinct assignments, which Bautista said last week would set off a domino effect on the rest of the preparations, ending in the postponement of the elections.
Cleansing voter rolls
In a unanimous vote during a special session yesterday, the 15-member Supreme Court dismissed for lack of merit Kabataan’s petition against the policy, upholding the Comelec’s goal of cleansing the voter rolls.
The court also dissolved the temporary restraining order it issued against the policy on Dec. 1.
Kabataan Rep. Terry Ridon said his group would file a motion for reconsideration.
Under the “no bio, no boto” policy, voters with no biometric data in the Comelec will not be allowed to vote.
The Comelec launched a campaign for biometric registration one and a half years ago, saying all the time that registered voters without biometric data would not be able to vote in the 2016 elections.
An estimated 2.5 million registered voters failed to answer the Comelec’s call to biometric enrollment during the entire period.
Kabataan argued that implementation of the Comelec policy would disenfranchise 2.5 million voters.
But in the decision written by Associate Justice Estela Perlas Bernabe, the Supreme Court made a distinction between “qualification” and “registration,” where “the latter is jurisprudentially regarded as only the means by which a person’s qualifications to vote is determined.”
Contrary to Kabataan’s claim that the biometric requirement was substantive and thus burdensome to registrants, the court said “registering is only one step toward voting.”
“It is not one of the elements that makes the citizen a qualified voter,” the court said.
“Thus, unless it is shown that a registration requirement rises to the level of a literacy, property or other substantive requirement as contemplated by the Framers of the Constitution—that is, one which propagates a socioeconomic standard which is bereft of any rational basis to a person’s ability to intelligently cast his vote and to further the public good—the same cannot be struck down as unconstitutional, as in this case,” the court said.
The court also said the biometric data requirement passed the “strict scrutiny” test, which it defined as “the standard used to determine the quality and amount of governmental interest brought to justify the regulation of fundamental freedoms.”
It found that the government’s intent in enforcing the policy is compelling, as it aims to ensure the conduct of clean elections.
“The court sustained the regulation challenged on the ground of strict scrutiny, ruling that the objective of cleansing the national voter registry so as to eliminate electoral fraud and ensure that election results are reflective of the will of the electorate constitute a compelling state interest,” the court said.
It said the biometric requirement was “the least restrictive means as it is a manner of updating registration for those already registered… through technology.”
“The regulation was narrowly tailored to achieve the compelling state interest of establishing a clean, complete, permanent and updated list of voters, and was demonstrably the least restrictive means to promote that interest,” the court said.
Ridon lamented the ruling, saying the Supreme Court succumbed to Bautista’s “doomsday scenario” of postponement of the elections.
“The unanimous voting is surprising, when two weeks prior, the Supreme Court itself voted to grant [a temporary restraining order]. Surely, the facts and law of the case had not changed in two weeks. It is unfortunate that the exaggerated doomsday scenario foisted by the Comelec worked on the [Supreme Court,” Ridon said.
Election Commissioner Rowena Guanzon said the Supreme Court ruling was “very good news” for the Comelec because the commission could now proceed with the “project of precincts.”
The project is the Comelec’s guide to determining how many voters there would be in every polling precinct.
Had the project been stopped, the Comelec would have been forced to restore in the rolls the names of voters who had been eliminated for not having biometric data.
“It’s very hard to put back the names of voters,” Guanzon said.
She said the 2.5 million voters who had failed to answer the call to biometric registration could still enroll after the May 9 elections but they should enlist before the barangay elections in October next year.
“There will be sufficient [time] for these voters to do their biometric validation after the May 2016 elections,” Guanzon said.
The Comelec had given voters 17 months to register and validate their biometric data to be able to vote in the 2016 general elections. The biometric registration ended on Oct. 31.
Subscribe to INQUIRER PLUS to get access to The Philippine Daily Inquirer & other 70+ titles, share up to 5 gadgets, listen to the news, download as early as 4am & share articles on social media. Call 896 6000.