POSTSCRIPT / February 2, 2003 / Sunday

By FEDERICO D. PASCUAL JR.

Philippine STAR Columnist

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Absentee voting law allows dual residence?

ARE THEY RESIDENTS?: The door has been slightly opened to an estimated seven million Filipinos abroad for them to vote starting May 2004. They could be the biggest swing vote in national elections, but problems may cut the voting turnout to less than half their number.

The bicameral congressional committee approved Thursday a compromise version of the Absentee Voting Bill after the House panel withdrew its objection to allowing Filipino immigrants who have permanent residence status abroad to vote.

The congressmen’s main objection was that immigrants no longer satisfy the constitutional requirement that they must have resided for at least one year in the Philippines and six months in their barangays before the election (see Section 1, Article V).

That objection was smoothed out with a condition tacked on to the compromise bill that the absentee voter must execute a sworn declaration that he would return to the Philippine after three years. Can the bill can go around the Constitution in that lame fashion?

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DUAL RESIDENCE: For 30 days leading to Election Day, Filipinos abroad will register and vote in Philippine diplomatic/consular missions nearest them, except in the United Kingdom, Canada and Japan where they are allowed to mail their ballots.

While there will be a scramble for the absentee votes, the law is likely to be questioned before the Supreme Court for what critics say are its constitutional defects.

One flaw mentioned is its presumption of the Philippine residence of the absentee voter when in fact he is already a permanent resident of another country. One cannot be a resident of two separate places, one abroad and another in the Philippines.

While dual citizenship is recognized by the Constitution (see Section 1, Article IV), dual residence for election purposes may be legally problematic.

Filipinos residing abroad are estimated to be some seven million, but the actual election turnout is not expected to exceed three million because of the physically tedious process of registration and voting in a limited number of places, plus the fact that millions of them are either no longer interested or have other disqualifications.

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NIGHTMARE SEEN: Some officials of the Commission on Elections, who declined to be identified for obvious reasons, say the registration and the voting process for millions of Filipinos abroad will be an administrative nightmare.

No money has been appropriated and no administrative infrastructure has been laid out for the coming absentee voting. In fact, there is no national budget approved yet for government operations this year (2003).

There will be the usual improvisations for which we are famous. Some volunteer groups, including some from Filipinos abroad, are expected to lend a well-meaning civic hand, but that might not be enough to help the process to succeed.

Then there is the expected suit, or several of them, before the Supreme Court questioning the constitutionality of the new law that President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo had promised to sign.

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IMPEACHMENT TRIVIALIZED: There is, meanwhile, the impeachment attempt in the House of Representatives against Comelec Commissioner Luzviminda Tangcangco, an exercise that trivializes the impeachment process and threatens to throw the poll body into disarray.

On the side, there is also the distracting debate over the insistence of the National Movement for Free Elections (Namfrel) of businessman Jose Concepcion to be allowed to operate as a citizens watchdog over the Comelec.

At the Comelec itself, the new chairman Benjamin Abalos has not completely sorted out the mess he inherited and he is already confronted with a presidential election and a move to force constitutional amendments.

Adding to the confusion, Malacanang has just put all its poll modernization eggs in one basket filled with controversial Counting Machines. We wonder who sold President Arroyo the gadgets passed off as the technical solution to fraudulent elections.

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IMPEACHMENT OUT: The filing of impeachment charges against constitutional officers for flimsy reasons trivializes a process enshrined in the Charter. Impeachment is resorted to only with deliberation and only for the gravest and most solid reasons.

Mercifully, the House committee on justice voting 36-16 threw out last week the impeachment charges against Tangcangco. The charges were filed by persons who, contrary to the rules, do not have direct personal knowledge of the facts alleged. The House cannot be expected to act on hearsay.

Our impression is that Tangcangco, who was often in the news because of her differences with the former Comelec Chairman Alfredo Benipayo, was raked over the coals for her outspoken ways and her having earned the ire of Namfrel bigwigs.

Her alleged culpable violation of the Constitution was her supposed failure to agree to the “modernization” of the electoral process through the purchase of computers and other devices for registration and voting.

As we see it, actually her sin was harboring ideas of modernizing elections that run contrary to the business plan of Namfrel chairman Jose Concepcion. Also, she is marked as an appointee of former President Erap Estrada.

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COUNTING GARBAGE: We were surprised by the latest move of President Arroyo, embodied in Executive Order No. 172, to pool P2.5 billion from Comelec and other sources for a supposed Automated Election System.

The reports on the issuance of the EO emphasized that the money was to be used for Counting Machines. But why put the P2.5-million eggs in one basket, just for counting?

Counting Machines are useless under the old adage of “Garbage In-Garbage Out” in computer practice. What will the machines count if all the stages before the counting (registration, voting, etc.) are shot through with defects?

We cannot modernize the entire process by attacking just one part of it, particularly the final stage. The necessity of a wholistic handling is obvious.

And then, can the President legally make appropriations via an executive order by pooling unused funds and using them for a favorite project? Isn’t appropriation a legislative function initiated exclusively by the House?

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(First published in the Philippine STAR of February 2, 2003)

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