Can Comelec sue voters over 'frivolous' objections?

MANILA, Philippines – The Commission on Elections (Comelec) said it is ready to sue voters who make "frivolous objections" over the way vote-counting machines (VCMs) read their ballots as indicated in voting receipts.

This is for cases when voters complain that their voting receipts show a set of votes different from the one on their ballot. Voters with "frivolous objections" commit an election offense, which means they can go to jail.

The Comelec included this rule in its amended general instructions for election inspectors, or Comelec Resolution 10088, published Tuesday, April 12.

In these general instructions, the Comelec said, "The filing of frivolous objections shall constitute an election offense punishable under the Omnibus Election Code."

The Omnibus Election Code says any person found guilty of an election offense "shall be punished with imprisonment of not less than one year but not more than 6 years, and shall not be subject to probation."

The poll body on Tuesday added that the Board of Election Inspectors (BEIs) is "allowed to administer oaths solely for this purpose so that if the protest is frivolous, falsification or perjury charges may be filed."

Former Comelec commissioner Gregorio Larrazabal, however, questioned this provision of Comelec Resolution 10088.

Ex-poll exec: What is 'frivolous'?

In a lettter to Comelec Chairman Andres Bautista on Thursday, April 14, Larrazabal said Comelec Resolution 10088 "does not contain the specific provision or section" of the Omnibus Election Code that classifies the filing of frivolous objections as an election offense.

Larrazabal said that in fact, Comelec Commissioners Luie Guia and Al Parreño "expressed reservations on the said provision of the resolution." 

"We are concerned that the reservations of two commissioners on the provision, and the absence of the specific provision of the Omnibus Election Code which categorizes the said act as an election offense, may cause confusion with the voters and civic-minded citizens who wish to file an election offense," Larrazabal said.

In a phone interview with Rappler, Larrazabal added: "What defines a frivolous suit? What is the definition of frivolous? Something may be frivolous for one, but not for another. So what's the qualifier there?"

He said his appeal to cite a specific provision of the Omnibus Election Code is actually "a way of helping" the Comelec. 

Larrazabal said citing an exact provision can firm up cases against potential violators.

Bautista, for his part, earlier explained why the Comelec is cracking down on frivolous objections

"Kasi ang ayaw nating mangyari sa araw ng halalan ay kung sinu-sino lang ang mag-complain para manggulo, para i-delay ‘yung proseso ng pagboto," the Comelec chairman said in a forum Wednesday, April 13.

(What we don’t want to happen is, on election day, practically anyone can just complain to create chaos, to delay the process of voting.)

Bautista said the Comelec has given BEIs the authority to administer oaths on voters making objections. 

There is no lawyer required to be onsite to witness these proceedings, but he said the Comelec has legal assistance desks in partnership with the Integrated Bar of the Philippines and the Philippine Association of Law Schools.

Smartmatic exec on 'creative' Filipinos

Lawyer Karen Jimeno – voters’ education head of Smartmatic, which has provided the Philippines' vote-counting machines – said the rules on frivolous objections address a concern even by election watchdogs.

"Sabi nila, alam ‘nyo naman ang mga Pinoy, very creative. May ibang mga kandidato, they can tell their supporters na mauna kayo doon mag-vote at tapos mag-raise kayo ng mga concerns, tagalan ninyo, para hindi na umabot ‘yung mga ibang botante," Jimeno said.

(They said, as you know, Filipinos tend to be very creative. Some candidates can tell their supporters to be the first to vote and to raise concerns and delay the process, so that other voters won’t make it.)

Under the Comelec’s amended general instructions, election inspectors should follow this procedure if a voter raises an objection over the way the VCM read his or her ballot:

Based on the general instructions, it is also an election offense to take voting receipts out of polling precincts. Election lawyer Emil Marañon questioned this provision in a Rappler explainer piece, saying that voting receipts should not be considered election documents or paraphernalia. 

The Comelec is implementing these new rules after the Supreme Court (SC), at the last minute, ordered it to issue voting receipts. (READ: Why SC denied Comelec appeal vs vote receipts

The poll body opposed issuing voting receipts because of logistical concerns, among other things. One of these is the possibility that voters might file frivolous objections over voting receipts.

The Comelec, however, lost its case in the SC partly because it failed to file a comment on the petition filed by senatorial candidate Richard Gordon and his political party, Bagumbayan, over voting receipts. – Rappler.com

Paterno R. Esmaquel II

Paterno R. Esmaquel II, news editor of Rappler, specializes in covering religion and foreign affairs. He obtained his MA Journalism degree from Ateneo and later finished MSc Asian Studies (Religions in Plural Societies) at RSIS, Singapore. For story ideas or feedback, email him at pat.esmaquel@rappler.com.

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