July 25, 2021 at 11:10 pm
Rey E. Requejo
The Supreme Court has junked the petition for mandamus filed by several poll watchdogs in 2019 seeking to compel the Commission on Elections to fully comply with its 2016 order to activate the so-called “Voter Verification Paper Audit Trail or VVPAT” as one of the minimum systems capabilities of the automated election system and a major security feature of the vote counting machine under Republic 9369 or the Automated Election Law.
Although the petition was dismissed for being moot, the SC still rendered a ruling that there was no grave abuse of discretion on the part of the Comelec as it has the sole authority to decide how to implement the automated election system.
In an en banc resolution written by Associate Justice Mario Lopez, the SC held that the Comelec substantially complied with the Court’s ruling in Bagumbayan on the matter of the VVPAT requirement.
The high court held in Bagumbayan-VPN Movement v. Comelec that the VVPAT requirement is substantially complied with when the voter’s receipt is printed, and the voter can physically verify his or her vote.
The petitioners argued that VVPAT was mandatory for audit purposes from the time of vote casting until vote counting.
The VVPAT consists of physical paper records of voter ballots as voters have cast them on an electronic voting system. It also allows every voter to confirm whether or not the machine cast the vote correctly based on the choice of the voter, thereby ensuring the integrity of the elections.
The petitioners also suggested to employ the proposed “Camerambola” to review the VVPAT, employ the proposed “Camerambola” method of digitally signing the election results
However, the SC ruled that the Comelec implemented its directive in Bagumbayan ruling by issuing guidelines that the VVP T must be printed in the form of paper receipts and that the voters can verify their votes through these receipts.
These allowed voters to register their objections in case of discrepancies with their actual votes.
“On a final note, the COMELEC exercised its judgment to ensure free, orderly and honest elections and to protect the secrecy and sanctity of ballots without grave abuse of discretion. To be sure, the Court will not hesitate to exercise its jurisdiction to compel the performance of a duty provided by law in appropriate cases,” the high court stressed.
The SC also held that the petitioners failed to prove that the prohibition of using capturing devices in Comelec Resolution No. 10460 is unlawful.
The petitioners were insisting that the poll body should allow even after the close of polls, the use of digital cameras and cellular phones to audit the totality of votes inside the precinct after shuffling the VVPAT receptacle.
Contrary to petitioners’ claims, the SC pointed out that the poll watchers can still register their protest on any irregularity and use capturing devices during the counting of votes and the transmission and printing of election returns, which will help them record their observations.
But the SC explained they are prohibited from using these devices during the casting of votes in order to comply with the constitutional policy of securing ballots’ secrecy and sanctity.
The tribunal said that this prohibition is consistent with the Omnibus Election Code, which considers it unlawful for any person to avail of any scheme to discover the contents of the ballots o f a voter.
“Notably, the VVPAT reflects the votes of a voter. Allowing the poll watcher or even the voters to take a picture of their VVPATs during the casting of votes may run contrary to the constitutional policy of keeping the ballots’ secrecy and sanctity,” the SC said.
The petitioners in the case include AES Watch, Buklod Pamilya, Capitol Christian Leadership, Citizen’s Crime Watch, Connecting Businessmen in the Marketplace to Christ, Latter Rain Harvest Ministries, One Vote Our Hope, Upper Room Brethren Church and several other individuals.