Nearly three weeks after the Commission on Elections (Comelec) unanimously passed a resolution which Comelec Chairman Sixto Brillantes, Jr. told the press “reinstates over 238,000 overseas Filipino voters who were earlier delisted for failing to beat the deadline to manifest their intent to vote in the midterm elections,” questions are being raised about whether the Comelec is serious about implementing its resolution.
Chairman Brillantes explained that the March 5, 2013 Comelec resolution means that previously delisted overseas voters will now be allowed to vote by merely appearing at the consular offices during the designated voting schedules: “They can activate it by coming out and voting when they go to vote, that’s the manifestation, the mere act of appearing.”
“The new rule will be more fair to the voters,” Brillantes said. In response to a question from the press, he replied: “This is our interpretation of the OAV law. We’re not sure if it’s mandatory.”
COMELEC POLICY CHANGE
The Comelec’s policy change developed after Chairman Brillantes and Commissioner Grace Padaca met on March 1 at the Comelec main office in Manila with representatives of the Global Filipino Diaspora Council (GFDC) who attended the 2nd Global Summit of Filipinos in the Diaspora held in Makati on February 25-27, 2013.
In that meeting which I attended, I reminded Chairman Brillantes that at the Overseas Absentee Voters (OAV) Summit sponsored by the Comelec on September 29, 2011, he assured us that the Comelec had decided to allow the 238,557 overseas Filipino voters – who registered in 2004 but did not vote in the 2007 and 2010 elections – to cast ballots in the May 2013 elections.
“It is simply not fair to all those overseas voters who relied on your assurance that they could vote in the May 2013 elections and therefore did not register to vote during the overseas registration period from October 31, 2011 through October 31, 2012 to then delist them in December of 2012,” I said. Chairman Brillantes conceded that he indeed made the assurance.
DISCRETIONARY, NOT MANDATORY
GFDC Spokesman Atty. Ted Laguatan explained that the Comelec’s delisting order was based on a mistaken interpretation of Section 9.2 of the OAV Act of 2003 as mandatory. “You clearly have the power to remove an overseas voter who did not vote in two consecutive elections,” Laguatan said, “but you also have the power not to remove an overseas voter who did not vote in two consecutive elections.”
The OAV Act of 2003 enumerated in Section 5 all the grounds for mandatory disqualification of overseas voters and failure to vote in two consecutive elections was not listed among them.
At that point in the discussion, Chairman Brillantes turned to a panel of three Comelec lawyers and asked one of them to read the relevant OAV section which provides that the registration of the OAV voters “shall be permanent, and cannot be cancelled or amended” except when the OAV voter wishes to be removed from the list or “when the overseas absentee voter’s name was ordered removed by the Commission from the Registry of Overseas Absentee Voters for his/her failure to exercise his/her right to vote under this Act for two (2) consecutive national elections” (Section 9.2).
TOO LATE FOR MAY 2013 ELECTIONS?
Chairman Brillantes then asked the Comelec lawyer if Section 9.2 was “mandatory”. He did not wait for the response and instead turned to us and asked if it would be alright if the delisted voters were allowed to vote in the 2016 elections instead as he thought it may be too late to include the delisted voters in the May 2013 elections.
I said that it was not alright. We had already directed a Makati law firm (Roque and Batuyan) to file a TRO in the Philippine Supreme Court if the Comelec insisted on delisting the overseas voters. But I told him, we did not want to have to spend time and money on the TRO. Besides it would only cast the Comelec in a negative light, making it even more difficult to encourage overseas voters to register in the future.
At that point the discussion turned to the practical issues of how to re-enfranchise the delisted overseas voters as automated election machines were already sent out to 7 designated places outside the Philippines. We responded that the Philippine consulates in charge of overseas voting can use a combination of written ballots and automated ballots.
At the conclusion of the meeting, Chairman Brillantes agreed to recommend to the Comelec in the meeting set for March 5 to reverse the decision delisting the overseas voters. As he later told the press, he asked Comelec commissioners “What’s wrong with the original plan that for overseas voters, showing up to vote will be the act of activation?”
EXTEND MANIFESTATION OF INTENT PERIOD
On March 5, 2013, the Comelec unanimously approved Resolution No. 9653 “to extend the period of filing of the manifestation of intent to vote until the last day of voting for overseas Filipinos”. The resolution noted that “in consultation with several overseas Filipinos, overseas Filipino organizations and other interested parties, there has been a consistent clamor to extend the period to file the manifestation of intent to vote, in order to give our overseas Filipinos the opportunity to participate in the May 13, 2013 elections.”
The resolution required the concerned voters “to present themselves at the Post where they are registered and sign in the blank OVF No. 2A provided for that purpose.” But there was a catch that was added. The Comelec will “allocate ballots equivalent to 20% of the registered voters in posts where postal voting is adopted; corollary thereto, no additional allocation shall be made for posts adopting personal and automated voting considering that the ballots allocated for them is sufficient to cover the voter turnout.”
The Comelec expects only 20% of the 238,557 overseas Filipino voters who were originally delisted to actually vote so only a limited number of additional ballots will be prepared “where postal voting is adopted.” In places where personal and automated voting is adopted, no additional ballots will be provided.
LIMITED BALLOTS FOR OVERSEAS VOTERS
Comelec Commissioner Lucenito Tagle, chair of the Committee on Overseas Absentee Voting (COAV), explained that the Comelec does not expect all of these reinstated overseas voters to actually vote this year. “Based on our studies, not all of the registered voters vote. There are many who don’t. So for these elections, we also don’t see all of them voting, even here locally,” Tagle said.
The migrant group, Migrante-Middle East (M-ME), denounced the Comelec decision to limit the number of additional ballots to accommodate the change in the resolution. “This is disenfranchisement, plain and simple… it is illogical and it does not make sense,” said John Leonard Monterona, M-ME regional coordinator.
The Comelec directed the Committee on Overseas Absentee Voting to implement this resolution. But 16 days after the resolution was adopted by the Comelec, the website has not even announced the new rule. The COAV section (comelec.gov.ph/oav/) does not even mention Resolution No. 9653 although it includes Resolution No. 9654 adopted on March 11, 2013.
When you click a box on the left side of the COAV section – “OAVs who FAILED to vote” – it will inform readers that the “Deadline for the Submission of Manifestation of Intent: January 11, 2013 as per Resolution No. 9578.”
COMELEC WEBSITE NOT UPDATED
In the OAV section called “Forms” (comelec.gov.ph/oav/?r=tpl/oav_registration_forms) is a list of 9 downloadable forms from OAVF No. 1 to OAVF No. 1H. But OVF No. 2A – which previously delisted overseas voters need to fill out and submit to the consular offices – is not among them.
The Comelec has also not contacted the Philippine Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA) to provide direction to the consular offices that will be handling overseas voting as to what they should do.
When I asked San Francisco Consul-General Marciano Paynor, Jr. what steps are being undertaken by the consulate to inform previously delisted voters in the San Francisco Bay Area about the change in the Comelec’s policy, he said that the consular officials are still waiting for guidance from the Comelec.
So what the heck is the Comelec waiting for?
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