Forfeited voting rights
THE COMMISSION on Elections is purging from the voters’ list the names of those who have passed away or failed to vote in two immediately preceding successive regular elections.
The delisting of deceased voters is aimed at preventing other people from assuming their identities and casting votes in their names.
According to reports, as of last month some 430,000 voters have been dropped from the list with the Comelec confirming their death.
The removal from the list of the names of voters who did not vote in two successive regular elections is in accordance with the Omnibus Election Code. The failure to vote, regardless of the circumstances behind it, authorizes the Comelec to bar the voters concerned from ever exercising their right of suffrage again.
The forfeiture of voting rights is summary in nature. The delisting can be done once the records show that a voter did not cast his or her vote in two successive national, local or barangay elections.
The Comelec is not obliged to look into the reason for the failure to vote. By keeping away from two successive regular polls, the voter is presumed to be no longer interested in participating in future electoral activities.
Based on that presumption, the voter loses what is considered one of the most significant features of citizenship—the right to choose the people who will perform the duties and responsibilities of public governance.
For a country that proclaims strict adherence to the principle of due process, the unilateral forfeiture of voting rights smacks of arbitrariness.
The affected voter is not given the opportunity to explain why he or she failed to vote, or should be barred from participating in future elections as a consequence of that failure. No consideration is given to the fact that the voter may have been sick on Election Day, was obliged to report for work under pain of disciplinary action or loss of pay, had to attend to an emergency, or was out of the country for personal or business reasons.
And there is also the possibility that the voter was, through intimidation or harassment, forced to stay at home or elsewhere on Election Day. It is common knowledge that some politicians prevent voters who they think will vote for their opponent from casting their votes.
Under ordinary circumstances, any of the causes cited may excuse a person from liability for failure to perform an act that he or she is obliged to perform.
If, after his or her side has been heard, the reason offered is determined by proper authority to be invalid or unacceptable, only then will the corresponding penalty be imposed. Our system of government is structured to “hear before it condemns.”
It is unfortunate that the principle of due process was overlooked in the enactment of the law authorizing the summary delisting of voters who failed to vote in two successive regular elections. No lawyer or civic organization has taken up the cudgels for the voters who have been or stand to be disenfranchised by this provision to question its constitutionality.
The disenfranchisement seems to have been accepted as par for the course in our electoral system. The right of suffrage is not held to the same test of inviolability accorded to the rights to free speech, press and religion.
An amendment of the law to correct this mistake will be ideal. However, going through the legislative mill for this purpose may be an exercise in futility. Our lawmakers are not known for doing their job unless forced to by strong public opinion, or the action will redound to their personal benefit.
The Comelec need not wait for Congress to correct the legal anomaly. As the government agency tasked by the Constitution to supervise Philippine elections, it can, as part of its rule-making power, provide a mechanism to make the delisting conform to the requirements of due process.
In coordination with civic organizations, the Comelec can send notices to the voters concerned, informing them that their names will be removed from the voters’ list if they fail to satisfactorily explain their failure to vote in two successive regular elections.
If the voter ignores the notice served at his or her registered address, then it can be reasonably presumed that he or she is no longer interested in participating in future elections.
The voter who wants to maintain his or her voting rights can be asked to explain in person at the nearest Comelec office his or her failure to vote, or to submit a sworn statement explaining the reason for the failure.
If the reason cited is credible, the voter’s name will not be removed from the list. Should there be doubts about the validity of the excuse given, the voter may be asked to submit additional evidence to prove it. If the excuse given is not acceptable, the delisting can be immediately implemented or, depending on the circumstances, reviewed further.
The idea is for the voter to be given the opportunity to present his or her side of the issue before being deprived of the right of suffrage for good.
The “notice and explain why” process can be undertaken by the Comelec during the three-year break in elections, or in the course of its review of the voters’ list prior to an election.
Admittedly, this procedure would add another task to the poll body’s already heavy work load. But it should be given serious consideration because the right of suffrage deserves more than passing respect.
Democratic governance is more meaningful if it is inclusive, rather than exclusive, in terms of voter participation.
Raul J. Palabrica ([email protected]) writes a weekly column in the Business section of the Inquirer.
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