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Senate panel defers briefing on Comelec’s 2022 budget due to voter registration issue

The Senate finance subcommittee on Friday deferred deliberations on the Commission on Elections’ (Comelec) proposed 2022 budget as senators wanted the poll officials to convene the en banc and reconsider its position on the extension of the voter registration period.

At the early part of the hearing, Comelec chairman Sheriff Abas said the en banc had “politely rejected” the calls to extend the voter registration period until October 31, 2021 due to the tight deadlines for the 2022 elections preparation.

He explained anew that there are “immovable dates” like the December 1 to 15 schedule for the loading of voters data in the vote counting machines. The Comelec also needs sufficient time for the project of precinct where they will determine the number of voters in every precinct.

However, Abas said Comelec has no choice but to extend the voter registration period if the bill seeking to move the voter registration deadline to Oct 31, 2021 is signed into law.

Countering the Comelec’s position, Senate Minority Leader Franklin Drilon said Republic Act 8189 mandates the continuing voters registration and it was affirmed by the Supreme Court in its ruling on the Kabataan party-list vs. Comelec.

Drilon said the poll body can extend the period of voter registration as long as it is not done during the period starting 120 days before a regular elections.

The minority chief argued that Comelec’s strong position not to extend the voter registration is “grave abuse of discretion” and a form of “voter suppression.”

“The actual circumstances of pandemic when our voters could not go out and register, may transportation ban pa, and this is not their own making. These are circumstances that are beyond their control… This is a clear cardinal sin in our democratic [society]. So we appeal, it is illegal and in violation of the Constitution and decision of the SC interpreting our pertinent election laws,” Drilon said.

Abas told the panel that they are willing to extend the voter registration if only they have sufficient time.

“Kung mayroon lang kaming time, kung mayroon kaming leeway ng time, hindi namin hihintayin na mag-request kayo. Kaso nga lang wala po talaga kaming time, your honors, medyo delikado po talaga,” he said.

(If we only have the time, the leeway of time, we will not even wait for you to request the voter registration. But we have no time, your honors.)

One week only

So far, the Comelec chairman said the compromise that they can give is to extend the registration for one week and it will be limited to new registrants only.

“That is why mawalang galang na po talaga, one week lang po ang kaya naming magbigay kasi mahirap mag-commit your honors, na papalpak kami in the end. Kasi in the end kami ang masisisi,” Abas added.

(That is why, with all due respect, we can only give one week because it is hard to commit but in the end, we will fail in conducting the elections. We are the ones to blame if that will happen.)

At the latter part of the hearing, Senator Francis Pangilinan floated the idea to postpone the deliberations of Comelec’s budget to allow the body to discuss and reconsider Congress’ position on the voter registration extension in an en banc session.

“We should also consider perhaps deferring action on the Comelec budget and give them time to discuss again their position en banc, because I understand it’s an en banc decision, and I wouldn’t want them not to have that opportunity to sit down and thoroughly discuss the position of Congress,” he said.

Pangilinan said the Comelec en banc has decided against the extension without considering the recent developments in the House of Representatives and the Senate.

“I’m presenting it as a possible option to be able to find a win-win situation. I would like to support the Comelec but in this matter of voter registration, the rights of the voters come first. Voting is the bedrock of any democracy and this is anti-democratic to say the least, to disenfranchise over 12 million who are still eligible but not registered and I hope and I pray that the change of heart might happen when they have the opportunity to discuss it en banc,” he added.

Earlier today, the House Committee on Suffrage and Electoral Reforms swiftly approved the bill seeking to extend the voter registration process until October 31, 2021.

The Senate, on the other hand, approved last Wednesday on second reading the bill for the voter registration extension.

The filing of the bill came after Drilon proposed to either cut the 2022 budget of Comelec to the “barest minimum” should they resist calls to extend the voter registration or just pass a bill that will mandate the extension.

Senate President Vicente Sotto III said Speaker Lord Allan Velasco assured him that they will “immediately support” the bill in the House.

The Comelec has insisted the need to end the voter registration on September 30 but they are open to extend the registration period for one week after the filing of certificate of candidacy from October 1 to 8— RSJ, GMA News