2022 Philippine Elections

[EXPLAINER] What lawmakers missed in their voter registration extension bills

Emil Marañon III
[EXPLAINER] What lawmakers missed in their voter registration extension bills
In passing these bills to force the Comelec’s hand to extend the registration, Congress has intruded into the poll body’s constitutional power to ‘enforce and administer all laws and regulations relative to the conduct of an election’

On Monday, September 27, both the Senate and the House of Representatives passed bills seeking to extend the period for voter registration. Both bills were very short, composed of just three sections. The main part provides:

Section 1. Last Day of Registration. — The last day of registration of voters for the 2022 National and Local Elections shall be thirty (30) days after the effectivity of this act.

Section 1 is followed by a repealing clause and an effectivity clause, which provides:

[T]his act shall take effect immediately after its publication in the Official Gazette or in a newspaper of general circulation.

The chairman and commissioners of the Commission on Elections (Comelec) and those who understand election management might be scratching their heads reading these bills. 

The first and the most obvious question that must be asked is: What is being extended?

As I previously wrote, Republic Act 8189 mandates a “system of continuing registration of voters” and, according to Section 8, should only stop 120 days before a regular election and should resume after. This means that for the May 9, 2022, elections, the deadline under the law should really be January 9, 2022. If the deadline is January 9, 2022, then what is the purpose of the extension bills?

As previously explained, the Comelec obviously recognizes the January 9, 2022, deadline set by RA 8189, which was passed in 1996, when polls were manual. However, the technical requirements and administrative preparations for holding an automated election, which we adopted starting 2010, have since rendered compliance with Republic Act 8189 logistically, physicall, and legally impossible. Since the shift, Comelec has been cutting short the registration period.

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To understand why the Comelec set a September 30, 2021, deadline, we must in be able to appreciate how little “elbow room” it has:

  • September 30, 2021 – Deadline for registration set by the Comelec
  • October 11, 2021 – The Election Officer has to post applications for registration in the city or municipal bulletin board and in his office; deadline for the filing of oppositions to contest a registrant’s application for inclusion in the voter’s list. (Section 17, RA 8189)
  • October 18, 2021 – Last Election Registration Board (ERB) hearing that will approve the applications for registration for the 2022 elections. (Section 17, RA 8189)

These dates mean that the Comelec will need to approve the last batch of voter applications by October 18 – which is about two weeks after the original September 30 registration deadline – before it can start printing the ballots by December. It needs to know the final number of ballots that it will print, which should correspond to the final number of voters.

The next scheduled ERB is on the third Monday of January 2022. By this time, the ballots shall have been printed and in the process of verification and packing.

I have been asked: Is it possible to just print additional ballots for those that don’t make it to the December printing? The answer is no. Ballots for the automated elections are not generic, they are precinct-specific. This means that each ballot is specific and coded to correspond to a specific precinct so it can be read by the specific vote-counting machine assigned to that precinct. Imagine a logistical nightmare of printing additional ballots for each of the 80,000-plus precincts!

Going back to the calendar, the most the Comelec can extend the registration period is for a week or until October 7, and reduce the poll body’s period for collation and administrative work before hearing the applications. 

But it cannot be moved so far that the October 11 and 18 activities will be affected, as these dates have been fixed by law and are unmovable. I believe that ERB schedules have been moved administratively before, but I maintain that this is unconstitutional as these dates were fixed by law. 

In sum, the bills, as drafted and passed by both the Senate and the House of Representatives are a half-baked solution that still do not address Comelec’s logistical and administrative predicaments that have driven it to reject extension requests.

For example, both bills did not move nor extend the periods for the posting of applications for registration (Section 17, RA8189), filing of oppositions to contest a registrant’s application (Section 18), and ERB hearings (Section 17). As noted, these periods are fixed by law and they cannot be moved by a mere administrative issuance by the Comelec. 

It is obvious that both bills were passed without the consent of or coordination with the Comelec. This is a bad legislative practice as this enters the highly technical and specialized sphere of election management which is better left with the Comelec. While legislation is the prerogative of Congress, Comelec would need to have a say on matters that directly affect them. There are complications that often only Comelec can see and would know best.

In fact, the reason election management is so complicated is because the Comelec has had to deal with the so many piecemeal amendments passed by Congress that are incoherent, conflicting, and inconsistent with realities on the ground. 

In closing, whether we admit it or not, these bills were passed precisely to force the Comelec’s hand to extend the registration. For me, this act by Congress is already an intrusion into Comelec’s constitutional power to “enforce and administer all laws and regulations relative to the conduct of an election…”

There is nothing to extend by law since there is already a law that allows it until January 9, 2022. This case at most is one of administrative refusal to implement an existing law for compelling reasons I have discussed before. Now, if anyone feels that the Comelec is wrong in cutting short the period to register, I believe that the correct remedy is for any dissatisfied potential registrant to go to the Supreme Court by mandamus to compel Comelec to reopen the registration, not for Congress to intrude into the work of an independent constitutional commission. – Rappler.com

Emil Marañon III is an election lawyer specializing in automated election litigation and consulting. He is one of the election lawyers consulted by the camp of Vice President Leni Robredo. Marañon served in Comelec as chief of staff of the late Chairman Sixto Brillantes Jr. He graduated from the SOAS, University of London, where he studied Human Rights, Conflict, and Justice as a Chevening scholar. He is a partner at Trojillo Ansaldo and Marañon (TAM) Law Offices.