Are we postponing barangay and SK elections or not? P500M is at stake

Three months before the barangay and Sangguniang Kabataan (SK) elections scheduled for October, Speaker Pantaleon Alvarez recently rekindled the talks on the postponement of the nationwide exercise. 

It must be recalled that on March 28, 2016, Surigao del Norte Representative Robert Ace Barbers filed House Bill 5359, which seeks to postpone the October 23, 2017, village and youth council elections to the 4th Monday of May 2020.

On May 23, 2017, or two months after, Senate Majority Leader Vicente Sotto III filed Senate Bill 1469, also seeking to postpone the elections, this time to the 4th Monday of October 2018.

Both versions, however, agree that vacancies will be filled in by appointment, and not by holdover as in the previous cases of postponement.

Since the passage of these two bills, we heard nothing from them. In fact, CIBAC Representative Sherwin Tugna, the chairman of the House committee on suffrage and electoral reform, had expressed pessimism on the passage of the bill, citing lack of time on the part of Congress.

But last July 18, or barely 3 months before the scheduled elections – right when everyone thought that the issue of its postponement is dead – Speaker Alvarez rekindled the talks on postponement. In his press statement, he did not only confirm the support of the House of Representatives to the move, but gave an assurance that Senate President Aquilino Pimentel III shares his view as regards the “necessity” of the postponement. 

Alvarez said the postponement of the elections and the appointment of officers-in-charge through the Department of the Interior and Local Government are intended to get rid of those barangay officials who are involved in the illegal drugs trade. He said this was a necessary step for the President’s war on drugs to succeed. Congress will lobby with President Rodrigo Duterte to certify the measure as urgent to ensure its swift passage, the Speaker said.

As in previous years, news of postponement put the Commission on Elections in a dilemma: should it slow down in its preparation, anticipating the cancelation, or go full blast despite the lack of assurances the exercise will push through? Usually, the Comelec would halt certain operations and slow down the rest of its preparations to avoid unnecessary expenditures should the proposed postponement materialize. It runs, however, the big risk that if the election pushes through, it will not have enough time to prepare.

How much Comelec is spending

While there are still 3 months to go, people need to appreciate that elections are not prepared overnight. An automated election, for example, takes 3 years of preparatory work, starting as soon as the last one ends. Manual elections, like the upcoming barangay and SK elections, ideally require one year of preparation. When push comes to shove, it can be reduced to a minimum of 4 months for the bidding of the election materials, their delivery, printing of ballots, ballot verification, packing, ballot deployment, and training of election workers.

Given the news of poll postponement, the Comelec decided to push through with the bidding, but withheld the issuance of the notices of award to winning suppliers of items which cannot be used in future elections. It also precariously delayed the printing of the ballots to August 15, 2017, to wait for Congress to decide and pass the postponement bill. 

This phase is critical as once the ballots have been printed and the election is eventually cancelled, these ballots will be rendered unusable in future elections since the Omnibus Election Code strictly requires them to be location- and date-specific. Delaying it further, however, could be disastrous if eventually the elections is not postponed as there will be not enough time to print the ballots, check them one by one for printing errors, pack them per precinct, and deliver them to all corners of the country in time for the October 23, 2017, polls.

For everyone to understand the magnitude of the implication of a belated postponement, we need to go through the numbers. As of June 20, 2017, Comelec reported that there are 56,737,237 voters for the barangay elections, and 20,920,968 voters for the SK elections. These figures are significantly higher compared to the last automated elections since the recent amendment of the SK law expanded its coverage to individuals aged between 15 and 30 years old. In effect, those registered voters between 18 to 30 years of age would get two ballots on election day, one for SK and one for the barangay elections.

This means that the Comelec needs to print 77,658,205 million ballots, excluding the contingency ballots required by law. The National Printing Office (NPO) reportedly charges P3 per ballot for printing, or a total of P233 million for the 77.7 million ballots.

As for the ballot paper, Comelec intends to use the excess ballot paper from 2016 automated elections and even from the prior years. While this does not present any cost on paper, nonetheless they have a monetary value that could conservatively be estimated at P200 million.

The carbonless paper that will be used for election returns, meanwhile, is estimated to cost around P55 million. The NPO’s printing rate is at P25 per election return, or a total of P4.25 million for the 170,000 election returns. The printed ballots and election returns alone would already conservatively cost around P492 million – almost half a billion of the taxpayer’s money.

Since the Comelec has started its preparations, there have been other unaccounted administrative and operational costs – for example, hiring of additional manpower, overtime expenses, preparatory trainings, and interagency coordination. 

Challenge at the Supreme Court

Even if Congress passes the postponement law, the latter will face a serious challenge before the Supreme Court. While postponing barangay elections is certainly not new, the proposal of Congressman Barbers and Senator Sotto to fill in vacancies by appointment is something that has never been done before. As discussed in my earlier explainer, the proposed appointment scheme raises serious constitutional issues which makes the fate of the postponement law also uncertain.

In the end, my point is simple: whether the postponement law will be passed and sustained by the Supreme Court or not, there will be dire consequences. If the postponement law comes too late, we stand to recklessly throw more than P500 million of the people’s money down the drain. And if the government loses its case and the Comelec is forced to conduct the elections as scheduled, this would mean taking risks in the rushed preparations, like making short cuts that leave the process open to mistakes.

All of these could have been prevented had Congress packed even a tiny dash of foresight and a drop of decisiveness. Elections are foreseeable. There is absolutely no excuse for this as we all know that barangay elections regularly take place every 3 years, and 3 years is a very long time for the members of Congress to decide on its cancellation.

Yet year in and year out, it is becoming a congressional habit to whimsically cancel the polls at the last few ticking minutes. Even if we momentarily forget how postponements of elections assault democracy and our collective right to regular and periodic elections, I cannot help but ask: why cancel it this late? Why not cancel it one year before to save time and money and also to give the Supreme Court sufficient time to resolve all attendant issues without being time-pressured?Hopefully this serves as another lesson to our legislators, but for the meantime we have to suffer the consequences. – Rappler.com 

Emil Marañon III is an election lawyer who served as chief of staff of former Comelec Chairman Sixto Brillantes Jr. He completed his LLM in Human Rights, Conflict and Justice at SOAS, University of London, as a Chevening scholar.