POSTSCRIPT / September 16, 2003 / Tuesday

By FEDERICO D. PASCUAL JR.

Philippine STAR Columnist

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Vicky has no duty to answer senators

WHAT MUSIC?: Victoria Toh, secretary and accountant of First Gentleman Jose Miguel Arroyo, should just ignore the prodding of an opposition senator for her to rush back home from Canada to confront her accuser and “face the music.”

“She should come home and take the witness stand,” Sen. Sergio Osmena III said. “She should not hope for this controversy to die down and for us to forget all about it before she returns.”

But why should Toh violate her own privacy and feed people’s appetite for gossip? Why should she allow senators to feast on her circumstances?

What “face the music” is Osmena talking about? Nobody ever thought of filing charges against her in court, so there’s really nothing to face.

There’s also no accuser to face in a Senate hearing. Sen. Panfilo Lacson made a quick exit after hurling his accusation that the First Gentleman laundered excess campaign contributions through a secret bank account.

If Lacson is right that unused campaign contribution is dirty money or illicit income, majority of his fellow senators may have to inhibit or disqualify themselves from the Senate hearing on money laundering.

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WRESTLING THE WIND: If in urging Toh to “face the music,” Osmena was referring to the innuendos and sick jokes being circulated, she should just ignore the loose talk and stay in Canada.

Toh might also want to tell her lawyer in Manila to stop answering questions about her. It is pointless to wrestle with the wind.

Osmena also reported that Toh had bought a house in Canada. So? Is it now a crime for businessmen to buy houses abroad? If it were so, more than half of our senators would be criminals.

Maybe Osmena, Lacson, et al. are suggesting a new ethical standard saying that it is now wrong for a private citizen to buy real property abroad, but right when a senator does.

Actually, Toh has no obligation to explain anything to the senators tormenting her. No explanation will ever be satisfactory to them anyway, so why should she bother?

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PASSPORT IS ENOUGH: Comes now this suggestion that Filipinos abroad be allowed to use their passports to identify themselves as qualified voters in lieu of the cumbersome paperwork that the Absentee Voting Law requires.

Representatives of overseas Filipinos suggested this option to the Commission on Election amid fear that the bureaucratic obstacles thrown their way might disqualify a substantial number of qualified voters residing abroad.

With just two weeks to go before the Sept. 30 deadline for the registration of absentee voters, out of an estimated 7.5 million such Filipinos abroad, only around 90,000 have registered. That’s a measly 1.2 percent.

While we see merit in this proposal, the Comelec may not be able to adopt it even if it wanted to, because it goes against the procedure and the requirements spelled out in the law.

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AMEND ELECTION LAW: If there is merit in the proposal, the obvious solution is to amend the law to make it legally feasible. There is still time to do this, since the election will still be in May of next year.

A passport is a prima facie evidence of a person’s citizenship. It also contains verified basic information about the holder.

A passport is a more reliable document and is more difficult to fake than the Voter’s ID card or the Comelec forms used to register voters.

A person who presents a valid Philippine passport, say at a Philippine embassy or consulate, must be presumed to be a Filipino. With his date of birth indicated on it, a poll clerk can easily determine if the person is of voting age.

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RESIDENCE REQUIREMENT: With the person’s citizenship thus established, the remaining crucial element is residence.

The Constitution says that a voter must have resided in the Philippines for at least a year prior to Election Day and six months in the place where he intends to cast his vote. That refers to legal residence, not physically living in the address given.

But with the “intention to return” doctrine having been applied to justify absentee voting, or the casting of a ballot outside one’s registered legal residence, there should be no problem accepting a Filipino of voting age who presents himself at the polling precinct abroad although he is not physically living at his listed legal residence.

One missing procedural step here is the usual registration, whose output is a registry or list of voters at a specific precinct that is posted for public review and possible challenge. But this deficiency can be cured by other precautions introduced by amendments.

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IMMIGRANTS STILL PINOYS: The Dual Citizenship Law (Rep. Act No. 9225) does not come into play here. The registration and voting process does not have to wait for anybody to reacquire his native Philippine citizenship.

Filipinos who had lost their citizenship when they were naturalized as citizens of another country cannot vote for the simple reason that they are no longer Filipinos.

But Filipino immigrants, also called permanent residents or green card-holders in the United States, are still Filipinos and may be allowed to vote if they possess the other qualifications and none of the disqualifications of voters.

So an immigrant or green card-holder who carries a valid Philippine passport is still a Filipino citizen for voting purposes.

His only possible problem is the residence requirement, but that element, as we said earlier, had been taken care of by the “intention to return” doctrine already in the law.

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DISINCENTIVE: The Absentee Voting law sought to plug this residence hole by requiring the voter to sign an affidavit or sworn statement wherein he promises or declares his intention to return and take up residence in the Philippines within three years.

It has turned out that this requirement has discouraged a big number of prospective voters who fear that their signing such an affidavit may jeopardize their immigrant status abroad and ulterior plan to apply for citizenship in the host country.

To go around this complication, we suggest that the affidavit-signing be dropped and the voter limited to voting only for national officials (president, vice president and senators) since those officials can be voted for from any place by a qualified voter.

We think that the residence requirement is crucial only in the election of local officials.

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CONTROLS NEEDED: To summarize, we believe that a Filipino acting in good faith should be allowed to cast a vote for national officials wherever he is, if he satisfies the other constitutional requirements (such as age).

We should make it easy for qualified voters abroad to cast their votes. Showing up at a polling precinct (maybe at the embassy or a consulate) with a valid passport to identify himself should open the door for him.

As control, the Department of Foreign Affairs can produce a master list of all passports validly issued within a cutoff date. A Filipino voter presenting himself at a precinct abroad will have his passport checked against this master list.

Some people will object to it, but we want to add another possible requirement: To be allowed to cast his ballot, a voter must also produce a copy of his latest income tax returns showing that he had paid his taxes for the last taxable year.

We urge everybody to debate this passport idea and for Congress to consider amending the Absentee Voting law to allow it. The passport is a more reliable document than a Comelec ID card or a voter registration form.

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(First published in the Philippine STAR of September 16, 2003)

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