A Funny Constitutional Provision

by Jose Ma. Montelibano

I have to call it funny for lack of a kinder word to describe the provision in the Constitution that calls for the cancellation and exclusion of one’s voting rights if the person had not voted for the last two preceding elections. I can immediately sense that the framers of the Constitution must have wanted to emphasize the importance of voting and used the fear factor to force eligible citizens to vote.  But it is a myopic provision nonetheless, selectively punishing Filipinos for a sin of omission and not applying the same vindictiveness for greater shortcomings.

Voting is a right and a privilege more than it is an obligation. It is desired of every citizen but it is still a right and a privilege more than an obligation. To not avail of a right or privilege is not a crime; it is a personal loss of the citizen who chose to do so. He or she deprived herself of an act that can strengthen democracy by his or her participation but commits no crime. Removing a right and privilege granted by one’s citizenship is a harsh punishment for an omission that is not even a crime.

A college classmate who became a lawyer and even served as a president of the Philippine Bar Association of the Philippines, Atty. Rico Agcaoili, informed our class that he had written to Speaker Feliciano Belmonte, Jr. recommending the repeal Paragraph (c), Section 123, of the Omnibus Election Code, BP 881, which excludes from the permanent registry of voters those who failed to vote in the preceding two regular elections.  I must admit that I had not paid attention to this concern in the past, and regret not having done so. It touches a raw nerve even for a citizen like me who is not a lawyer.

We are all here in the Philippines, and another 10 million who are abroad to work or to migrate, happy and sad to be Filipinos. There is a natural attachment to a motherland full of beauty and abundance, truly a wonder of the world. We are among the highest, if not the highest, in biodiversity or life forms. If we believe in a Creator and creation, then we can claim that the Creator blessed our islands so generously with so much life—even if we are mostly interested in what can be sold or monetized.

But why, then, are we cursed with massive poverty affecting millions of families in a land so rich, so fertile, so beautiful? Why, then, are we cursed with corruption—or the buying and selling of power for personal gain? Poverty unsolved should be a crime. The pain that is inflicted on Filipino citizens is perverse and offensive. Less damage in many other things are already culpable violations of law, yet this acute daily suffering of the poor is not punishable, not even considered an act of commission and omission.

What were the framers of the Constitution thinking, or not thinking about? Or what was so important politically, like the right and privilege of suffrage, yet not as important similarly, like the massive poverty of poor Filipinos and the crass sub-culture of corruption in the highest places of officialdom and business? My God, we even have a convicted plunderer that has been allowed not only to vote but to run for public office again. And we can remove with little or no feeling what is a right and privilege of a citizen? How did this come to be?

I must apologize to my classmate that I am digressing from a legal matter to go social, political and moral. But that is the recourse of citizens even if we are not lawyers or public officials, that in a democracy, we can air our views and sentiments. We may not be correct but we deserve a reply. And if we are wrong, we must be shown just why we are wrong and another viewpoint, like the official viewpoint in question here, is right.

I remember one simple case regarding the discounts granted to senior citizens. When one senior citizen, who only happened to be a lawyer as well, was denied the discount mandated by law because he did not present his senior citizenship card, he filed a case and won. Why? Because the law says that the discount is not granted by the senior citizenship card but by the fact that the citizen has reached the age that qualifies. The election ID does not grant the right and privilege to vote. It is a right and privilege of citizenship. Procedural lapses must not allow authorities to remove a sacred right and privilege.

Atty. Agcaoili did mention that there could have been very valid reasons why a registered voter was not able to vote in two preceding regular elections. I guess that as a lawyer, he can present many justifiable legal reasons. I cannot. But I understand citizenship. I understand being a Filipino. I understand that rights and privileges, as a human being or a citizen, cannot just be shoved aside by even a Constitution without the most grave of reasons. And not voting twice in a row is so much less than avoiding or evading taxes. It is so much less than tolerating hunger, tolerating landlessness, tolerating homelessness. Worse, it is so much less than tolerating corruption.

The framers of the 1987 Constitution must have been honorable men and women, but they were dead wrong here. If patriotism through suffrage was their intent to promote, motivation was needed, education was needed, good example was needed. Because they were after a virtue, not after punishing a crime. If the absence or immaturity of virtues promoting patriotism becomes punishable, we will have less country but more prisons.

Well, the deed is done, the Constitution written, honorable people had done their work with good intentions but built one pathway to hell nonetheless. It is time to condemn and seal that pathway forever.

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