SC Dismisses AES Watch, et al.’s Petition against COMELEC

July 25, 2021

The Supreme Court has dismissed on the ground of mootness the petition to compel the Commission on Elections (COMELEC) to review the voter verifiable paper audit trail (VVPAT), employ the proposed “Camerambola” method of digitally signing the election results, and remove the supposed prohibition on capturing devices while inside the polling precinct in the 2019 elections.

In the resolution penned by Justice Mario V. Lopez, the Court En Banc held that AES Watch, et al.’s petition for mandamus was moot and academic. The Court noted that a case becomes “moot” when it ceases to present a justiciable controversy by supervening events so that a declaration thereon would be of no practical use or value. “The conclusion of the 2019 National Elections rendered the petition academic,” it held.

The Court further held that the petitioners and intervenors failed to prove that the COMELEC abused its discretion and unlawfully neglected any duty enjoined by law.

The COMELEC implemented a paper-based automated election system technology and utilized optical mark reader machines in the conduct of the 2010, 2013, 2016, and 2019 National Elections. The COMELEC used the Precinct Count Optical San (PCOS) machines in 2010, and 2013, and the Vote-Counting Machines (VCM) in 2016 and 2019.

As held in Bagumbayan, 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 Court noted that the COMELEC implemented this directive and issued guidelines that the VVPAT must be printed in the form of paper receipts and that the voters can verify their votes through these receipts. The voters were also allowed to register their objections in case of discrepancies with their actual votes.

As for the proposed “camerambola” solution, the Court held that petitioners and intervenors did not establish the legal basis for the same. The Court said that the former merely wanted to audit all VVPATs immediately after the elections and compare it with the election results, but were silent as to the intended purpose and how

COMELEC should mobilize the volunteers and watchers nationwide to conduct this audit.

The Court noted that “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 Court also further noted that it already held in its Capalla ruling that “it is clear that the PCOS machines are capable of digitally-signed transmissions.”

The Court relaxed the requirement of legal standing given petitioner AES Watch, et al.’s allegation that they were filing the petition as citizens. The former assailed the constitutionality of the prohibition on poll watchers from taking photographs of the proceedings during the elections, among others, but did not allege any material injury or claim that they are poll watchers, registered votes, candidates, members of a political party or members of an accredited citizens group in the 2019 elections. As for intervenors, the Court said that they failed to establish the requisite personal and substantial interest.

“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 Court said as a final note.

(GR No. 246332, AES Watch, et al. v. COMELEC; December 9, 2020)