Senators exasperated by the refusal of the Commission on Elections (Comelec) to grant their request for a one-month extension of voter registration made good on their threat to use the poll body’s 2022 budget as leverage.
On Friday, September 24, the Senate finance panel deferred action on the proposed 2022 budget of the poll body until the commission en banc reconsiders their appeal to move the registration deadline to October 31, 2021, from September 30.
“The chair enjoins the Comelec, through its Chairman [Sheriff] Abas, na kung maaari po ay makapag-en banc discussion muli ang commission (that the en Banc holds a discussion) for a third and last time,” said Risa Hontiveros, who presides over the hearing as vice chairperson of the Senate finance panel.
The session, which lasted just over an hour, saw the poll body unable to finish its budget presentation after senators grilled Comelec offcials over its decision to stick to the September 30 registration deadline.
Senate Minority Leader Franklin Drilon said that the law mandates “a system of continuing registration of voters” until 120 days before a regular election. For the May 9, 2022 vote, that’s until January 9 of next year.
“Your resolution setting September 30 as a deadline for registration…cannot be enforced because it is a clear voter suppression regulation. Your reliance on your resolution is out of place. In my humble opinion, it is illegal,” Drilon told Abas.
But Abas insisted that the poll body no longer has enough time to extend registration by at least a month due to other calendared activities that would be greatly affected by the proposed change of deadline.
“If we will follow January, for example, printing na po natin ng balota (that already coincides with the printing of ballots). Physically, it’s impossible to comply,” Abas said.
Comelec’s bargaining chip
Desperate for a compromise, Abas told lawmakers that the poll body was willing to automatically extend registration by one week after the October 1 to 8 filing of certificates of candidacy.
“Kung okay sa inyo, regardless of the outcome of the bill that has been passed by the two houses of Congress, i-extend na namin nang one week, automatic na iyong extension,” he said.
(If it’s okay with you, regardless of the outcome of the bill that has been passed by the two houses of Congress, we’ll extend registration by one week automatically.)
“Iyong in-offer namin na one week, mayroon pa kaming hihingin na kung puwede, new registrants at magpapa-reactivate lang, hindi na iyong gustong magpa-transfer,” he added. “Mahirap mag-commit, tapos papalpak kami in the end.
(In the one-week extension that we are proposing, we would like to ask whether it’s possible to only accommodate new registrants and voters wanting to reactive their voter data, and not those who want to transfer their registration. It’s difficult to commit then fail in the end.)
The Senate, however, did not budge.
Both chambers of Congress are keen on fast-tracking the passage of a bill seeking to extend the registration deadline until October 31.
The Comelec has said that if the legislature were to pass it, they would have no choice but to comply.
Unimpressed by targets
Election stakeholders are worried that millions of Filipinos would be disenfranchised if the Comelec would stick to its deadline.
The Comelec has over 61 million registered voters, way past its initial projection of 59 million voters.
But the projected voting population of the Philippine Statistics Authority for the May 9, 2022 vote is 73.3 million.
Comelec Commissioner Marlon Casquejo said that even in past elections, the total number of eligible voters was unable to match PSA’s projection.
The Comelec also revealed that the number of first-time voters for the 2022 polls already breached the five-million mark, way past its target of four million.
But Drilon was unimpressed by the Comelec’s efforts to meet its numbers.
“I don’t buy the argument that you have exceeded your target, because in the first place, kayo naman ang gumawa ng target ‘nyo (you set your own target),” Drilon said. “You could have made your target [just] one million.”
Another round of discussions
Hours after the Senate budget hearing on Friday, Comelec Spokesperson James Jimenez announced that the poll body’s management committee hearing will convene in the last week of September to craft recommendations to the En Banc on the extension of voter registration.
“[The meeting] will take into consideration the realities on the ground, including the fact that our Comelec officials are in fact falling to COVID-19 due to constant exposure,” Jimenez said.
“By considering voter registration at this late date, the Comelec is effectively playing with fire, but this is a challenge we are willing to undertake in the service of the Filipino electorate,” he added.
The senators’ insistence for the poll body to move the deadline stemmed from the repeated suspension of voter registration in areas that were under coronavirus-driven hard lockdowns for months.
Rappler’s research show that the lockdowns imposed since the start of the pandemic in 2020 have taken away six to eight months from the registration period, depending on the affected areas. – Rappler.com