Why the SC wants voter receipts implemented

Ina Reformina, ABS-CBN News

MANILA - "The credibility of the results of any election depends, to a large extent, on the confidence of each voter that his or her individual choices have actually been counted. It is in that local precinct after the voter casts his or her ballot that his confidence starts. It is there where it will be possible for the voter to believe that his or her participation as sovereign truly counts."

This is the point stressed by the Supreme Court (SC) in its decision to compel the Commission on Elections (Comelec) to activate the Voter Verification Paper Audit Trail (VVPAT) and print voter receipts that correspond to the votes he cast on his ballot.

The high court, granting the petition filed by Bagumbayan-VNP Movement Inc. and former Senator Richard Gordon, ruled that the Comelec cannot opt not to comply with the provision of Republic Act (RA) No. 8436, which authorized the automation of the Philippine election system, as amended by RA No. 9369, "which requires the automated election system to have the capability of providing a voter-verified paper audit trail."

The high court pointed out that this feature is one of the minimum system capability requirements provided for in the law, which are mandatory. 

"The minimum functional capabilities enumerated under Section 6 of RA No. 8436, as amended are mandatory. These functions constitute the most basic safeguards to ensure the transparency, credibility, fairness and accuracy of the upcoming elections. 

"[T]he inaction of the Commission on Elections in utilizing the VVPAT feature of the vote-counting machines fails to fulfill the duty required under RA No. 8436, as amended... [T]he Commission on Election's act of rendering inoperative this feature runs contrary to why the law required this feature in the first place. Under RA No. 8436, as amended, it is considered a policy of the state that the votes reflect the genuine will of the People," the SC decision read. 

While the high court agreed that the Comelec "is given ample discretion to administer the elections," it pointed out that "its constitutional duty is to 'enforce the law.'"

"The Commission is not given the constitutional competence to amend or modify the law it is sworn to uphold," the decision read. 

READ: Comelec chief: SC ignored poll body's expertise

THE BALLOT IS NOT THE VOTER'S RECEIPT

The Comelec, in media interviews, expressed "surprise" at the high court's ruling, stating that the high court had already ruled in a previous case that the ballot serves as the voter's receipt.

In the decision rendered in the Bagumbayan-VNP case, the high court said the ballot is not the voter's receipt. 

"There appears to be no room for further interpretation of a 'voter verified paper audit trail.' The paper audit trail cannot be considered the physical ballot, because there may be instances where the machine may translate the ballot differently, or the voter inadvertently spoils his or her ballot. 

"The law is clear. A 'voter verified paper audit trail' requires the following: (a) individual voters can verify whether the machines have been able to count their votes; and (b) that the verification at minimum should be paper based," the decision read.

To clarify this point, the high court cited the case of Maliksi vs. Comelec, where the losing mayoralty candidate questioned the result of the elections. The high court said the outcome of the voting in the said mayoralty race did not reflect the votes cast on several ballots. 

"In Maliksi vs. [Comelec]... upon inspection of the physical ballots, several votes were invalidated due to the presence of double-shading. However, when the digital printouts of the ballots were checked, the questioned ballots only had single shade. the physical ballots were tampered to invalidate several votes. 

"The situation in Maliksi could have been avoided if the Commission on Elections utilized the paper audit trail feature of the voting machines," the decision read.

The high court also will pointed out that issuing voter's receipts will "make random manual audits more accurate." 

READ: Brillantes: Leave Comelec alone

'VOTE-BUYING' FEARS CANNOT TRUMP COMPLIANCE WITH VOTER'S RECEIPT REQUIREMENT OF THE LAW

The Comelec "cannot opt to breach the requirements of the law to assuage its fears regarding the VVPAT," the high court said, stressing that the poll body has enough power to craft guidelines to govern the voter's receipt. 

"The [Comelec] has the power to choose the appropriate procedure in order to enforce the VVPAT requirement under the law, and balance it with the constitutional mandate to secure the secrecy and sanctity of the ballot. 

"We see no reason why voters should be denied the opportunity to read the voter's receipt after casting his or her ballot. There is no legal prohibition for the Commission on Elections to require that after the voter reads and verifies the receipt, he or she is to leave it in a separate box, not take it out of the precinct," the decision read. 

COMELEC'S ATTENTION CALLED FOR FAILING TO FILE COMMENT ON THE PETITION

The high court, meantime, pointed out that the Comelec failed to respond to the petition despite the fact that before it (Comelec) was ordered to file its comment within a non-extendible 5-day period, the Comelec was already furnished a copy of the Bagumbayan-VNP petition by the Clerk of Court.

Instead of complying with the order, the poll body, through the Office of the Solicitor General (OSG), filed a motion for extension for the filing of its comment.

The high court said, "due to the urgency to resolve this case," it denied the motion and ruled on the case. 

"It perplexes this court that the Commission on Elections failed to immediately transmit relevant documents to the Office of the Solicitor General to allow them to respond within the time granted... This court cannot fail to act on an urgent matter simply because of the non-compliance of the Commission on Elections and the Office of the Solicitor General with its orders. 

"This court cannot accept the lackadaisical attitude of the Commission on Elections and its counsel in addressing this case... Among all government bodies, the Commission on Elections is the entity that should appreciate how important it is to respond to cases filed by the public to enable these rights," the decision read.

In an interview with reporters on Thursday during the annual convention of the Philippine Women Judges Association, Chief Justice Maria Lourdes Sereno said government agencies impleaded in cases before the courts should make time to properly respond to these cases. 

"I would like to caution people: when a matter is under litigation before the court, the procedure is to make such communications with the court because that's the only way we can take cognizance of the positions that they have... We (SC) are working very hard as you see we have set aside a lot of our time on election issues and you can see how fast we have been working.

"So we want to make this call... especially when we say that when a deadline is non-extendible this is to be taken very seriously because we don't usually give out such an order... the appropriate time should be devoted to attending to court matters by everybody. Simply because a body is a constitutional body that is very very important and at the center of many of our national concerns does not mean that court requirements are to be taken lightly," Sereno said.

The chief magistrate stressed that the forum before which the Comelec should raise its position is the SC so that this can be acted upon.

"We (SC) don't take matters that are aired before the media and are not properly raised before us," Sereno said.

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