Responding to a plea to extend the time to register to vote in the May 2010 elections, the Philippine Supreme Court issued a unanimous decision on December 8, 2009 extending the voter registration period to January 9, 2010. Because the decision only covers voters in the Philippines, a petition to the Court to extend its ruling to cover overseas Filipinos will be filed this week.
Filipinos in the Philippines had until October 31, 2009 to register to vote in the May 8, 2010 elections while those outside the country were given only until August 31, 2009 to do so. The period of voter registration for the former lasted eleven (11) months starting on December 1, 2008 while those for the latter lasted only seven (7) months starting on February 1, 2009.
The Supreme Court’s decision in Palatino v. Comelec directed the Philippine Commission on Elections (Comelec) “to proceed with dispatch in reopening the registration of voters and hold the same until January 9, 2010.”
Citing Section 8 of the Voter’s Registration Act of 1996, the Court held that Congress determined that the period of 120 days before a regular election was enough time for Comelec to make all the necessary preparations with respect to the coming elections. According to petitioner Raymond Palatino, Comelec had “usurped the power of Congress to legislate” by deciding that it needed 69 days more than what Congress had determined.
The Supreme Court decision did not cover all voters because the Palatino petition only involved the registration of Philippine voters which is covered by one Republic Act, RA 8189 (The Voter Registration Act of 1996) while that of Filipinos abroad is governed by another, RA 9189 (The Overseas Absentee Voting Act of 2003).
Why did the Comelec set different expiration dates for the registration of voters in the Philippines and those abroad?
According to the Comelec, they were complying with Section 6 of RA 9189 which provides “that all applications for the May, 2004 elections shall be filed with the Commission not later than two hundred eighty (280) calendar days before the day of elections.” August 31, 2009 is exactly 280 calendar days before the May 2010 elections.
But the very next line of that sentence in Section 6 stated: “For succeeding elections, the Commission shall provide for the period within which applications to register must be filed.” The reference to the 280 calendar days only applied to the May 2004 elections and not to “succeeding elections”. The Comelec was not barred by RA 9189 from setting a different deadline.
In fact, Comelec had the power to allow for a shorter preparation period as the 120 day timeline mandated by Congress only applied to RA 8189, voters in the Philippines. More Comelec resources are required to register voters in the Philippines while minimal Comelec resources are needed to register overseas voters as that function has been handled by Philippine consular officials.
A local consul disclosed that the Comelec’s role in registering overseas voters was simply to provide the consulates with voters’ registration machines, which are all still in the consulates and have not been shipped back to the Comelec. It will not take much to get the machines back into operation, the consul said.
The Comelec had set a goal of registering one million new overseas voters but fell far short of it, as only 225,000 new voters registered.
The Comelec’s failure to meet its stated goal may be due in part to the limited registration period. Instead of beginning registration on December 1, 2008 as it did with Philippine voters, it delayed overseas registration to February 11, 2009.
The Comelec also did not allocate funds and resources to publicize the registration of overseas voters (like placing ads in Balitang America), leaving that responsibility entirely to local consuls to do what they could with their own limited resources.
A review of Comelec press releases showed one that related to overseas voters: on July 13, 2009, the Comelec declared its intention to “tap the Iglesia ni Cristo, the Jesus is Lord Church and the overseas Filipino workers’ (OFW) group Migrante International to help them in its campaign to increase the turn-out of overseas absentee voter (OAV) registrants.” That was it.
Why did the Comelec wait so long to do so little?
One clue to the answer is the identity of the “Comelec Commissioner-in-Charge for Overseas Absentee Voting (OAV)”. It is none other than Nicodemo Ferrer, the same Comelec commissioner who rejected the lesbian gay party-list group, Ang Ladlad, from party-list accreditation on “moral grounds” even quoting from an internet Christian website that described homosexuality as "unseemly" or "transgressive" to support his position.
When challenged about his religious views, Ferrer moved away from his “moral grounds” rationale to his unsupported claim that there there were already too many gays in Congress so there was no need to accredit a gay party-list group.
Nicodemo Ferrer is also the same Comelec commissioner who issued rulings to unseat three incumbent provincial governors – all members of the Liberal Party - Isabela Gov. Grace Padaca, Pampanga Gov. Ed Panlilio and Bulacan Gov. Joselito Mendoza - in favor of administration party challengers.
When the registration period for overseas Filipinos ended on August 31, Sen. Noynoy Aquino had not yet announced his candidacy as the Liberal Party presidential standard-bearer and many overseas Filipinos did not yet have a presidential candidate to support.
This week, lawyers for the newly-formed US Pinoys for Noynoy-Mar (noymar2010.com) will file a petition with the Comelec to extend the Palatino ruling to overseas Filipinos. Given Comelec Commissioner Nicodemo Ferrer’s track record, he will likely reject the petition, which will then be appealed to the Supreme Court.
This would not be the first time US Pinoys would go to the Supreme Court. In 2004, the Comelec issued a ruling that dual citizens were not eligible to vote in Philippine elections because they did not satisfy the residency requirement. Loida Nicolas Lewis, Greg Macanbenta, Alex Esclamado and other Filipino American leaders filed a petition with the Philippine Supreme Court to nullify the Comelec ruling.
On August 4, 2006, in the case Nicolas-Lewis v. Comelec, the Supreme Court overturned the Comelec and allowed dual citizens the right to vote in Philippine elections stating that the essence of the dual citizenship law is to “enfranchise as much as possible all overseas Filipinos.”
In filing the petition with the Supreme Court to extend its Palatino ruling to overseas Filipinos, the Court will be reminded of its decision in Nicolas-Lewis v. Comelec and in the principle that the right of suffrage which is a fundamental right in a democracy must be treated as a higher right than the power of the Comelec to regulate the conduct of elections.