Voter Receipts: Redundant or Necessary?
NOT TOO many Filipinos are aware that the law requires the Commission on Elections (Comelec) to provide the voter a receipt of his or her vote. The Comelec did not issue such a receipt in the first ever automated ballot in 2013. There were no complaints then.
Section 6 of Republic Act No. 9369, which amended Republic Act No. 8436 which mandated automated elections, states that the Comelec should provide a “voter verified paper audit trail (VVPAT)” as one of its “minimum system capabilities.’ The press reported on the petition for a writ of mandamus that former senator, Richard Gordon, filed before the Supreme Court to order the Comelec to issue voter receipts.
In his petition, Gordon decried the Comelec’s failure to implement safeguards for the automated elections. “Among these safeguards was the VVPAT. A voter verified paper audit trail consists of physical paper records of voter ballots as voters have cast them on an electronic voting system,” Gordon said. “Because of this continued failure, the integrity of the elections has not been restored as the automated elections law intended. This has got to stop.”
Prior to the petition, the Comelec had said that it would not be issuing receipts for the 2016 elections, citing the amount of time it would add to the process and its possible use as proof in vote-buying schemes. But on March 8, the Supreme Court upheld Gordon’s petition and ruled that the Comelec should issue receipts.
Left with only two months to comply with the SC ruling, the election commissioners warned about the possibility of postponing the elections or a return to the manual polling system. The Comelec filed a motion for reconsideration seeking reversal of the SC ruling, arguing that the issuance of receipts would be a “surplusage,” or superfluous. But on March 17 the Court affirmed its decision with finality.
From the start, media reports about this issue did not help the public understand the problem. It seemed that the press was just as clueless about the voter’s receipt issue, the purpose it would serve, and the mechanism involved in its issuance. Neither did the reports refer to the experience in 2013. And the reports did not consult sources who could have clarified whether its issuance is mandatory or necessary.
Comprehensive insights into the issue were provided by online opinion pieces. Rappler published lawyer Emil Maranon III’s “EXPLAINER: Why it’s alright not to have voting receipts” last February 29. The article said that the ballot itself can be considered a voter-verified paper trail.
This article, however, was contradicted by another opinion piece by another election lawyer, Automated Election System Watch member Glenn Chong, titled “VIEWS: It is absolutely wrong to disable the vote receipts” which was also published by Rappler last March 2. This article said that “ballot images are encrypted, not readily readable, stored inside the CF cards, guarded zealously by the Comelec, and examined only in an expensive and protracted electoral protest,” and that votes can only be verified by the voter after a receipt confirming the accuracy of his or her choices has been issued.
Given the different interpretations of legal experts, it is understandable that journalists may have difficulties explaining what kind of document, for example, qualifies as “paper trail.” Indeed, election lawyer Romulo Macalintal said Gordon’s arguments in his petition were speculative and misrepresented, since the law, he said, does not clearly define a VVPAT as a printed receipt. The Comelec, through Solicitor General Florin Hilbay, argued in its motion for reconsideration that “it is the official ballot, and not the voting receipt, which is the best evidence of the votes cast.”
Precisely because of these different interpretations of the law and the fact that many of those who were weighing in on it have vested interests to protect, it was up to the press to provide the background and explanations on such a complex matter. But little of what appeared in the news reports helped the public evaluate the various interpretations of the law. That it took lawyers and experts writing opinion pieces to try to make sense of this provision of the law speaks volumes on either laziness among journalists or their unwillingness to understand it.