Constitutional Law, Political Law

KABATAAN PARTY-LIST v. COMELEC Suffrage, Biometrics Law; Constitutionality, Strict Scrutiny

FACTS:

President Benigno Aquino III signed into law RA 10367. Essentially, RA 10367 mandates the COMELEC to implement a mandatory biometrics registration system for new voters, and directs that “[r]egistered voters whose biometrics have not been captured shall submit themselves for validation.” “Voters who fail to submit for validation on or before the last day of filing of application for registration for purposes of the May 2016 [E]lections shall be deactivated x x x.”

The COMELEC issued Resolution No. 9721 which serves as the implementing rules and regulations of RA 10367, thus, prescribing the procedure for validation, deactivation, and reactivation of voters’ registration records. Among others, the said Resolution provides that: “[d]eactivated voters shall not be allowed to vote“.

The COMELEC commenced the mandatory biometric system of registration.

On November 25, 2015, herein petitioners filed the instant petition with application for temporary restraining order (TRO) and/or writ of preliminary mandatory injunction (WPI) assailing the constitutionality of the biometrics validation requirement imposed under RA 10367, as well as COMELEC Resolution No. 9721, and all related thereto.

They contend, among others, that: (a) biometrics validation rises to the level of an additional, substantial qualification where there is penalty of deactivation; (b) biometrics validation gravely violates the Constitution, considering that, applying the strict scrutiny test, it is not poised with a compelling reason for state regulation and hence, an unreasonable deprivation of the right to suffrage; and (c) voters to be deactivated are not afforded due process.

COMELEC Chairman Bautista, urgently appealed for the immediate lifting of the above-mentioned TRO, stating that the COMELEC is set to finalize the Project of Precincts (POP) and that the TRO issued in this case has the effect of including the 2.4 Million deactivated voters in the list of voters, which, in turn, would require revisions to the POP and consequently, adversely affect the timelines of all other interrelated preparatory activities to the prejudice of the successful implementation of the Automated Election System (AES) for the 2016 Elections.

ISSUE:

Whether or not RA 10367, as well as COMELEC Resolution Nos. 9721, and  all related thereto, are unconstitutional.

RULING:

The petition is bereft of merit.

As early as the 1936 case of The People of the Philippine Islands v. Corral, it has been recognized that “[t]he right to vote is not a natural right but is a right created by law. Suffrage is a privilege granted by the State to such persons or classes as are most likely to exercise it for the public good.”

The State may therefore regulate said right by imposing statutory disqualifications, with the restriction, however, that the same do not amount to a “literacy, property or other substantive requirement.” Based on its genesis, it may be gleaned that the limitation is geared towards the elimination of irrelevant standards that are purely based on socio-economic considerations that have no bearing on the right of a citizen to intelligently cast his vote and to further the public good.

Properly speaking, the concept of a “qualification”, at least insofar as the discourse on suffrage is concerned, should be distinguished from the concept of “registration”, which is jurisprudentially regarded as only the means by which a person’s qualifications to vote is determined.

In Yra v. Abaño, citing Meffert v. Brown, it was stated that “the act of registering is only one step towards voting, and it is not one of the elements that makes the citizen a qualified voter [and] one may be a qualified voter without exercising the right to vote.” In said case, this Court definitively characterized registration as a form of regulation and not as a qualification for the right of suffrage:

Registration regulates the exercise of the right of suffrage. It is not a qualification for such right.

As a form of regulation, compliance with the registration procedure is dutifully enjoined. Thus, although one is deemed to be a “qualified elector,” he must nonetheless still comply with the registration procedure in order to vote.

As to the procedural limitation, the right of a citizen to vote is necessarily conditioned upon certain procedural requirements he must undergo: among others, the process of registration. Specifically, a citizen in order to be qualified to exercise his right to vote, in addition to the minimum requirements set by the fundamental charter, is obliged by law to register.

To complement RA 8189 (Voter’s Registration Act) in light of the advances in modern technology, RA 10367, or the assailed Biometrics Law, was signed into law. It built on the policy considerations behind RA 8189 as it institutionalized biometrics validation as part of the registration process.

Biometrics refers to a quantitative analysis that provides a positive identification of an individual such as voice, photograph, fingerprint, signature, iris, and/or such other identifiable features.”

Sections 3 and 10 of RA 10367 respectively require registered and new voters to submit themselves for biometrics validation:

Section 3. Who Shall Submit for Validation. – Registered voters whose biometrics have not been captured shall submit themselves for validation.

Section 10. Mandatory Biometrics Registration. – The Commission shall implement a mandatory biometrics registration system for new voters.

Under Section 2 (d) of RA 10367, “validation” is defined as “the process of taking the biometrics of registered voters whose biometrics have not yet been captured.”

The consequence of non-compliance is “deactivation” which “refers to the removal of the registration record of the registered voter from the corresponding precinct book of voters for failure to comply with the validation process as required by [RA 10367].”

Notably, the penalty of deactivation, as well as the requirement of validation, neutrally applies to all voters. Thus, petitioners’ argument that the law creates artificial class of voters is more imagined than real.

It should also be pointed out that deactivation is not novel to RA 10367. RA 8189 already provides for certain grounds for deactivation, of which not only the disqualifications under the Constitution or the Omnibus Election are listed.

With these considerations in mind, petitioners’ claim that biometrics validation imposed under RA 10367, and implemented under COMELEC Resolution Nos. 9721, 9863, and 10013, must perforce fail. To reiterate, this requirement is not a “qualification” to the exercise of the right of suffrage, but a mere aspect of the registration procedure, of which the State has the right to reasonably regulate.

[T]he act of registration is an indispensable precondition to the right of suffrage. For registration is part and parcel of the right to vote and an indispensable element in the election process. Proceeding from the significance of registration as a necessary requisite to the right to vote, the State undoubtedly, in the exercise of its inherent police power, may then enact laws to safeguard and regulate the act of voter’s registration for the ultimate purpose of conducting honest, orderly and peaceful election.

Applying strict scrutiny, the focus is on the presence of compelling, rather than substantial, governmental interest and on the absence of less restrictive means for achieving that interest, and the burden befalls upon the State to prove the same.

In this case, respondents have shown that the biometrics validation requirement under RA 10367 advances a compelling state interest. It was precisely designed to facilitate the conduct of orderly, honest, and credible elections by containing – if not eliminating, the perennial problem of having flying voters, as well as dead and multiple registrants.

The re-registration process is amply justified by the fact that the government is adopting a novel technology like biometrics in order to address the bane of electoral fraud that has enduringly plagued the electoral exercises in this country.

That being said, the assailed regulation on the right to suffrage was sufficiently justified as it was indeed narrowly tailored to achieve the compelling state interest of establishing a clean, complete, permanent and updated list of voters, and was demonstrably the least restrictive means in promoting that interest.

Rights beget responsibilities; progress begets change.

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