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Senators vow to block 'budget insertion' allowing Comelec to ease safeguards

The Senate's leaders are checking on it but in the first place, a provision inserted into the national budget bill cannot waive mandatory safeguards on automated poll equipment, senators said on Monday, November 30.

Such a provision would contravene existing election and procurement laws, which a mere insertion in the budget bill cannot supersede, senators added.

"If true, it will amend the procurement law, which cannot be amended by inserting that clause in the General Appropriations Act (GAA)," Senate Minority Leader Franklin Drilon told Rappler in a message.

The provision may be "unconstitutional as a rider, since it had nothing to do with the budget," Drilon said.

"Firstly, the General Appropriations Act can only contain provisions that are consistent with appropriations, and secondly, being a general law, it cannot amend a special law which RA (Republic Act) 8436 as amended by RA 9369 is," Senator Panfilo Lacson said in a message to reporters.

Senate President Vicente Sotto III said as much in a tweet on Sunday night, November 29: "Easy to shoot down the proposal: Provisions of a general law cannot amend the provision of a special law. RA 8436 as amended by [RA] 9369 is a special law while GAA is a general law."

RA 9369 – the automated election law – mandates the Commission on Elections (Comelec) to allow the testing of equipment and devices to be used in voting and counting votes prior to the polls.

On Sunday, Sotto responded on Twitter to a report that "someone at the Senate" is attempting to insert into the 2021 GAA – the budget bill – a provision allowing the Comelec to disregard requirements and safeguards on polling equipment stipulated in RA 9369.

"Cannot allow. I'm looking into it already!" Sotto tweeted in response to the allegation made by election lawyer Emil Marañon on his Twitter account. Former Comelec commissioner Goyo Larrazabal also retweeted the allegation, to which Sotto responded similarly.

"We are checking on that but the Senate President’s directive is clear on that matter – not to allow any such attempt to influence the 2022 elections," Senator Sonny Angara told Rappler in a message on Monday.

As chairperson of the Senate committee on finance, Angara will lead the Senate contingent of the bicameral conference committee that will finalize the budget bill this week, starting Tuesday, December 1.

It is unclear who is making the attempt to insert the alleged provision in the budget bill, and the senators themselves have yet to confirm its veracity.

"I received that report. I do not know if that provision was in the Senate version which we approved. If it is there, I do not know who authored that amendment. In any case, I brought it to the attention of Senator Angara," Drilon said, adding that Angara committed to block such a provision.

The Senate passed the P4.5-trillion national budget bill last Thursday, November 26. Reporters have yet to receive a copy of the voluminous measure, which is being readied for the bicameral conference with members of the House of Representatives.

Senators who have spoken about the matter were unanimous in opposing attempts to waive safeguards on automated election equipment. Those safeguards include rigorous vetting and testing of hardware and software by public and private watchdogs.

Even with prior tests and inspections, some quarters have raised suspicions about the automated election systems used in the past. Former senator Bongbong Marcos, who lost to Vice President Leni Robredo in 2016, is disputing the result with an electoral protest. A recount of pilot provinces selected by Marcos widened Robredo's lead.

Senator Imee Marcos, Bongbong's sister, said in October that a pending bill proposing a shift to hybrid elections – a mix of manual voting and automated canvassing – has been delayed by the COVID-19 pandemic, and is unlikely to be passed in time for the May 2022 national elections.

Senator Marcos, chairperson of the Senate committee on electoral reforms and people's participation, told ABS-CBN News on Sunday that she is "completely opposed to waiving procurement safeguards" on automated election equipment.

Senator Leila de Lima, who remains detained at the Philippine National Police Custodial Center in Quezon City, urged her colleagues in the bicameral panel to "be vigilant against any dangerous amendments."

"Anyone who seeks to steal our elections is an enemy to our people and our democracy. They should be treated as such," De Lima said in a statement on Monday.

"There is no excuse for Comelec not to undergo regular procurement. If they cannot do their job, they have no business running a most crucial institution. They better just resign. Any attempts at negotiated procurement for election equipment can only be seen as negotiating the elections itself," she continued.

"Our elections are sacrosanct to our democracy, and Comelec should resist any attempts by anyone to undermine its credibility, no matter who appointed them," De Lima wrote.

Of the 7 commissioners of the Comelec, 6 were appointed by President Rodrigo Duterte. Elections chief Sheriff Abas was appointed commissioner by then-president Benigno Aquino III in 2015, and then named Comelec chairperson by Duterte in 2017. – Rappler.com

JC Gotinga

JC Gotinga often reports about the West Philippine Sea, the communist insurgency, and terrorism as he covers national defense and security for Rappler. He enjoys telling stories about his hometown, Pasig City. JC has worked with Al Jazeera, CNN Philippines, News5, and CBN Asia.

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