Supreme Court ruling thrusts Comelec in state of emergency

MANILA, Philippines (UPDATED) – The Commission on Elections (Comelec) found itself in a state of emergency on Tuesday, March 8, after a Supreme Court (SC) ruling practically required the poll body to overhaul crucial processes that took months to finish.

The Comelec, in fact, scheduled an “emergency, all hands” meeting on Wednesday, March 9, to plan its next steps after the SC unanimously ordered the poll body to issue voting receipts.

Comelec Chairman Andres Bautista stressed “that this decision has been made a mere 62 days away” from the May 9 national and local elections.

It’s a situation that could force the Philippines to revert to manual elections, or to postpone the May 9 polls if the Comelec will strictly adhere to the SC decision. 

“This is a day of sadness not for the Comelec, not even for the Supreme Court, but for Philippine democracy and the rule of law,” Comelec Commissioner Arthur Lim said.

Lim was speaking at a rare news conference with 6 of 7 Comelec members present, as one of them was abroad for official business. 

On the same day, the SC junked the Comelec order to bar Senator Grace Poe from running for president, but Poe was the least of the Comelec’s concerns. 

The Comelec only said a word or two about Poe, and focused on what Lim called an “unexpected emergency.” 

(Watch the news conference below)

Comelec didn't submit comment on time

Bautista said, “There is no question that this decision materially impacts our preparations for the 2016 elections, and we will need to revisit our timelines.”

Bautista said the emergency meeting of the Comelec Project Management Office will be held at the poll body’s warehouse in Santa Rosa, Laguna, which is around two hours away from the Philippine capital, Manila. 

Officials of the Comelec and technology provider Smartmatic, as well as other stakeholders, will attend the meeting on Wednesday.

This comes after the SC on Tuesday voted 14-0 to grant the petition of senatorial candidate Richard Gordon and his political party, Bagumbayan, to require the Comelec to issue voting receipts.

The SC on February 23 required the Comelec to comment on Gordon and Bagumbayan’s petition, 5 days upon receiving an official notice.

The Comelec requested the SC to extend the deadline, but the high court rejected this request. Instead of filing it last week as required by the SC, the poll body filed the comment only on March 7.

Now alarmed at the SC ruling, Bautista said the SC decision will require the Comelec to redo things such as the following:

'This is a very difficult situation'

The Comelec earlier voted 7-0 not to issue voting receipts. The poll body said receipts can be used in vote-buying and can also lengthen the time for voting. 

The poll body, as a middle ground, instead enabled the on-screen verification of votes. Through this feature, VCMs will display each person’s votes on the monitor for 15 seconds at most.

The on-screen verification of votes can also lengthen the voting time by at least two hours and 30 minutes, but the Comelec said it made this “gamble” for the sake of transparency.

In making this decision, Bautista said the Comelec considered not only legal issues, which the SC factored in when it required the Comelec to issue voting receipts.

He said the poll body also weighed “practical, operational, and technical concerns that one needs to consider when managing an election.”

Lim, who made impassioned gestures on Tuesday, stressed that the Comelec “is not an ordinary agency of government,” but “is a constitutional commission that has the technical expertise on election matters.”

“The Comelec's position, as a specialized agency of government, with a special expertise on election matters, should have been given great weight, instead of just being brushed aside as an agency, which has already decided on the issue,” Lim said. 

He added, “This is a very difficult situation that the Supreme Court has created for the country.”

Reacting to the SC decision, presidential candidate and Davao City Mayor Rodrigo Duterte said, “That is the problem of the Comelec because those are the safety measures guaranteed for transparency. Ngayon hindi nila ginawa that is their problem, kaya nga may mga security measures para to avoid doubts in the result of the election. Those were the things put in place by law at bakit hindi nila ginawa noong una? (Now they didn’t do that so that is their problem, that’s why there are security measures to avoid doubts in the result of the election. Those were the things put in place by law and why didn’t they do that at first?) There is a problem there. – Rappler.com

Paterno R. Esmaquel II

Paterno R. Esmaquel II is a senior reporter leading Rappler’s coverage of religion and foreign affairs. He finished MA Journalism in Ateneo and MSc Asian Studies (Religions in Plural Societies) at RSIS, Singapore. For story ideas or feedback, email him at pat.esmaquel@rappler.com.

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