A proposed measure seeking to institutionalize a system of online voter registration–something seen as essential in the persisting COVID-19 pandemic–has moved forward in the House of Representatives.
Approved by the Committee on Suffrage and Electoral Reforms in a close 5-4 vote (yes-no) was the substitute bill to House Bill Nos. 69, 578, 7063, 7411, and 7746, with the title “An Act strengthening the procedure for registration of voters and adopting a system of online registration, amending for the purpose certain sections of Republic Act 8189, otherwise known as the Voter’s Registration Act of 1996.”
In a rather unusual occurrence since virtual hearings became part of the new normal, panel chairperson, Negros Occidental Rep. Juliet Marie De Leon Ferrer, had to break a tie (4-4) between the panel members and ex-officio members who wanted to pass the bill at the committee level and those who didn’t.
“Since the urgency of the online registration is something we really want to pass…(my) vote will be ‘yes’ (to approving the substitute bill),” Ferrer said.
She noted that any contentious provision may be tackled at the plenary anyway once the entire 300-strong chamber takes up the still unnumbered bill, which was a consolidation of the five bills.
“The Coronavirus disease 2019 has brought numerous obstacles over the efforts of the Commission on Elections (Comelec) to secure voters’ registration. Public health considerations and existing protocols have led to the Comelec’s suspension of its physical voter registration efforts,” Majority Leader Martin Romualdez of Leyte, one of the authors of HB No.7063, said in the bill’s explanatory note.
“With no immediate end for the COVID-19 pandemic in sight, it is believed that rather than wait for the pandemic to end, the Comelec should be pro-active and adopt innovative measures, such as online voters’ registration, to facilitate voters’ registration during the COVID-19 pandemic and for it to continually fulfill its mandate of protecting the Filipinos’ right of suffrage,” added Romualdez.
Ironically, Romualdez’s co-author for HB No.7063, Senior Citizens Party-List Rep. Francisco Datol Jr., died from COVID-19 last August.
The proposed online registration system is also expected to be beneficial to the country in the long run since it would provide the electorate and the government with an “efficient, convenient, and cost-effective” mechanism for voters’ registration. The next elections will take place in May 2022.
While they subscribed to the urgency of the measure, Surigao del Norte 1st district Rep. Bingo Matugas and Deputy Speaker, Cagayan de Oro 2nd district Rep. Rufus Rodriguez both contended that Section 9 of the substitute bill–which amends the scope of valid registrants under Republic Act (RA) 8189–was unconstitutional.
Section 9 of the substitute bill reads, “All citizens of the Philippines not otherwise qualified by law who are at least 18 years of age, and who shall have resided in the Philippines for at least one year, and in the place wherein they propose to vote, for at least six months immediately preceding the election, may register as a voter. Provided, however, that no person shall be allowed to register without presenting any valid proof of residence.”
The controversial last sentence was supplied by Surigao del Norte 2nd district Rep. Robert Ace Barbers in his measure, HB No.69. He said the provision was meant to address the perennial problem of “flying voters.”
“I would agree with Cong. Matugas that this would violate the…Constitution,” Rodriguez said, adding that the 1987 Charter clearly states that no literacy, property, or other substantive requirements shall be imposed on the exercise of suffrage.
He said that having to present a valid proof of residence like a tax declaration, real property tax receipt, or even household utility bill–as suggested by the amended section–constitutes the imposition of a property requirement.
To this, Barbers said: “Can any Tom, Dick, or Harry register online and Comelec will not demand or ask for any requirement as proof of residence?”
In the end, the House panel–on the strength of Ferrer’s tiebreaker–passed the substitute bill in its entirety. Rodriguez, for his part, said he would always “defer to the wisdom of the chair.”