When Maritess Salientes Bloom, a dual citizen from Boston, Massachusetts, appeared at a hearing before the members of the Philippine Commission on Elections (COMELEC) in Manila on January 14, 2010, she was hopeful that the commissioners would grant her petition to extend the voter registration period for overseas Filipinos.
There was, after all, no opposition to her petition and the commissioners who heard her lawyer’s arguments expressed no reservations and actually seemed sympathetic to the plight of overseas Filipinos. Loida Nicolas-Lewis, a New York resident and long-time advocate for the suffrage rights of overseas Filipinos who accompanied Maritess to the hearing, called me right after the hearing to tell me “the good news”.
“There will be an en banc hearing of all the Comelec commissioners on Tuesday, January 19, but it is all but certain that the Comelec will extend the voter registration period for overseas Filipinos,” she announced.
I was attending a meeting in South San Francisco when Loida called so I placed her on my speaker phone and all the overseas Filipinos in the room heard her announcement and her cry of “Hallelujah!” which everyone in the room joined in chorus.
It seemed too good to be true. For the last several months, I have written articles advocating for the extension of the registration period for overseas Filipinos and I had personally e-mailed each of the Comelec commissioners but all my e-mails went unheeded. Not one of them bothered to even give me the time of day.
Then on December 8, 2009, the Philippine Supreme Court (SC) unexpectedly granted the petition of Roberto Palatino to extend the registration period for Philippine voters after his petition was denied by the Comelec. After reviewing the Palatino decision, Loida and I concluded that our best hope for securing the extension of the registration period for overseas Filipinos was with the Supreme Court.
Our Philippine lawyers, headed by Atty. Jose Amor Amorado, informed us that we first had to file a petition with the Comelec, which I was virtually certain the Comelec would reject, before we could take the matter up the SC.
So our lawyers prepared the petition on behalf of Maritess Bloom, an overseas Filipino who had not been able to register before the August 31, 2009 deadline but who wanted to do so. Her petition to the Comelec was filed on January 11, 2010 and the hearing was set for three days later.
At the January 14 hearing, Atty. Amorado argued that the deadline for overseas registration should be extended by 28 days because the Comelec’s August 31, 2009 deadline was 28 days shorter than the deadline set by the Philippine Congress when it approved the Overseas Absentee Voting Act of 2003 (RA 9189).
The shortened deadline, Bloom’s petition asserted, “effectively deprived millions of the voting population twenty-eight (28) days of opportunity to register provided to them by the Overseas Absentee Voting Act of 2003, thereby actually amending the statute’s provision on the system of continuing registration of overseas absentee voters.”
The arguments seemed to hit home with the commissioners who did not question the petitioner or her lawyers.
Despite the early optimism, however, on January 19, 2010, the Comelec commissioners voted unanimously to reject Bloom’s petition by declaring that the 280 day "prohibitive period" applied only to the 2004 elections because Congress explicitly stated that "for the succeeding elections, the Commission shall provide for the period within which applications must be filed".
What the Comelec failed to comprehend is that when the Philippine Congress passed the Overseas Absentee Voting Law in 2003, it set a 280 day “prohibitive period” because Congress anticipated that it would take a longer time to get the voter registration mechanisms in place for overseas elections as it would be the first time it was being done. After the basic mechanisms were set in place, Congress believed that it would take a considerably shorter time in future elections to register overseas voters so it left it up to the Comelec to set future deadlines. Instead of the shorter period anticipated by Congress, the Comelec went in the opposite direction.
In denying Bloom's petition, the 9-page Comelec decision explained that it would take a longer time for overseas voting because "for the first time, the Commission shall be implementing the nationwide automated election system". But overseas voting will be manually tabulated and not automated so this was totally irrelevant.
To explain why it didn’t have enough time to extend the registration for overseas voters, the Comelec cited examples of what it has to do to prepare for the May 2010 elections like “project precincts”, and "Board of Election Inspectors" and listing the candidates for local elections. But all of these examples don’t apply to overseas absentee voters who can’t vote for local candidates and who don’t require “Inspectors” or “project precincts” as consular officials will supervise the voter registration and the actual voting.
In its decision, the Comelec boasted that it had “done its best in ensuring the success of the overseas absentee voting system” by taking credit for all the actions of the consular officials to register overseas Filipinos with their limited resources without any financial assistance from the Comelec.
The Comelec defensively insisted that it “did not sleep on its job” of registering overseas Filipinos but the commissioners’ loud snores belie this empty claim. They’re all still asleep.
In its conclusion, the Comelec stated its duty "to balance the interest of the electorate with the end in view of ensuring that the right of suffrage of our people is not deprived of them." This is actually the key to understanding the attitude and mentality of the Comelec commissioners towards overseas Filipinos.
By “our people”, the Comelec is really only referring to the Filipino voters in the Philippines. It is only their “right of suffrage” that the Comelec cares about, reflecting a consistently callous and total indifference to the suffrage rights of overseas Filipinos.
The Comelec decision will be appealed to the Supreme Court.