Comelec hit for lack of urgency, 'cosmetic reforms'

MANILA, Philippines – The Commission on Elections (Comelec) on Tuesday, April 19, failed to tackle two pressing issues in the May 9 elections, one of which might rob people of the right to vote if the poll body runs out of ballots. 

Former Comelec Commissioner Gregorio Larrazabal, who raised these concerns in a letter to Comelec Chairman Andres Bautista, criticized the poll body on Tuesday for its supposed lack of urgency in its preparations. 

Questioning the Comelec's new rule on replacement ballots, election lawyer Emil Marañon III on Tuesday said the Comelec seems "obsessed with superficial and cosmetic reforms" at the expense of "critical matters".

Larrazabal explained in a message sent through Twitter: "While people are so passionate about who they’ll vote for president, they fail to realize that if these things aren’t fixed, YOUR VOTES WON’T MATTER (emphasis his)."

He stressed, "Your votes WON’T MATTER if these issues aren’t resolved by the Commission en banc."

Larrazabal was referring to two basic problems in the Comelec’s amended general instructions for election inspectors. 

Comelec Commissioner Christian Lim, who practically runs the 2016 elections as its steering committee head, separately said he has the same concerns.

Larrazabal said one issue is about the Comelec’s unprecedented rule on replacement ballots.

Under its amended rules for election inspectors, the Comelec allows voters to get replacement ballots if, through no fault of their own, vote-counting machines (VCMs) reject their original ballots.

Disenfranchising voters?

On separate occasions, Lim and Larrazabal said the Comelec could run out of ballots because of this rule. (READ: Comelec ballot rule may rob voters of right to vote

This is because the number of ballots per precinct will only be as many as the number of voters there. In other words, the ballot-to-voter ratio will strictly be one-is-to-one. 

Where would the spare ballots come from? The Comelec said it doesn’t expect a 100% voter turnout, anyway, so there will be always spare ballots. 

Lim, however, said it is "possible" that the new ballot replacement rule can disenfranchise voters.

Opposing the new ballot replacement rule, Larrazabal said: "The problem here is, if you have 800 voters, and 700 voters appear, then 120 voters ask for a replacement ballot, at the end of the day, if someone goes there at 4 o'clock and the BEI [Board of Election Inspectors] would say, 'Sorry, we’ve run out of ballots,' what happens? So now you disenfranchise the voter also."

The other problem, according to Lim and Larrazabal, is the Comelec’s new rule on "frivolous objections" over the way vote-counting machines read their ballots. (READ: Can Comelec sue voters over 'frivolous objections'?)

Lim called this an "impossible crime." He said this is a "Comelec legislation." 

In an interview with reporters, Comelec Commissioner Luie Guia said the poll body did not discuss the rules on replacement ballots and frivolous objections during its en banc meeting on Tuesday.

Asked what they discussed on Tuesday, Guia said, "Marami kaming napag-usapan." (We discussed many things.)

Referring to the replacement ballots and frivolous objections, the commissioner added, "Parang nakita ko, nasa agenda 'yon." (I think I saw that on the agenda.)

Larrazabal, for his part, said it is "very disappointing because some people don’t see the urgency of the problem, and can’t see how this will affect the May 9 elections and how it can be used for fraud."

He also pointed out in a separate letter on Monday, April 18, that as far as he knows, no training on the amended rules has been conducted for trainers of BEIs. He said he fears that "with everyone rushing, the trainings will be done in a haphazard manner," as elections will happen in only 3 weeks. 

Bautista has declined to comment on Larrazabal’s statements as of posting time.

'100% turnout exceptional,' but...

Like Larrazabal, Marañon opposed the new ballot replacement rule.

Marañon, former chief of staff of ex-Comelec Chairman Sixto Brillantes Jr, scored the Comelec for allowing replacement ballots on the premise that not everyone will vote and that there will always be spare ballots.

"While I concede that a 100% turnout is exceptional, it is inconceivable either for the Comelec to open a possible scenario where anyone’s right to vote is jeopardized. The most prudent thing to do is to presume that all of those who registered will vote, and that presumption should be made to stand until the poll closes, when the voters' intention to abstain becomes definite," Marañon said in an explainer piece published on Rappler. (READ: The problem with Comelec's idea of replacement ballots)

"A projected scenario where only '75% will vote and 25% will not vote' is at best speculative. For a policy to be drawn on the basis of such speculation, especially when the same affects a fundamental human and constitutional right, is a new low for Comelec," he explained.

Marañon – now a Chevening scholar studying human rights, conflict, and justice in the UK – added that the new rule "is so vague" and will surely confuse teachers serving as BEIs.

For one, Marañon said, "who should decide if it is the voter who is at fault or it is the system" used in voting? 

He continued: "How is this determined? Do the BEI members have the technical knowledge to decide when it is a systemic defect or not?"

Lawyer asks: Why only now?

He said the Comelec should have anticipated these basic questions, but its amended general instructions contain none.

He said it "is difficult to understand why all of these changes are happening only less than a month before elections, and only after the completion of the BEI trainings." 

Marañon said: "The Comelec chairman, who admitted to have made this suggestion, was appointed in May of 2015. Why did he not suggest it earlier if he thinks it is the right thing to do?" 

"Comelec lately has been seemingly obsessed with superficial and cosmetic reforms to enhance the agency's public image. In the process, it loses its focus on the important and the critical matters," he said.

Marañon added, "It should channel its energy on ensuring the timely delivery of voting machines, conducting voter education, and retraining teachers, especially on the contingency procedure and on the security situation in the polling areas."

"Definitely not among them should be prescribing bib vest uniforms for teachers, canvassing the votes at the Manila Hotel, and now this last-minute changing of rule on ballot replacement," the election lawyer said. – 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.

image