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[BAI SANDRA S.A. SEMA v. HOUSE OF REPRESENTATIVES ELECTORAL TRIBUNAL](http://lawyerly.ph/juris/view/cd212?user=fbGU2WFpmaitMVEVGZ2lBVW5xZ2RVdz09)
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630 Phil. 656

EN BANC

[ G.R. No. 190734, March 26, 2010 ]

BAI SANDRA S.A. SEMA, PETITIONER, VS. HOUSE OF REPRESENTATIVES ELECTORAL TRIBUNAL AND DIDAGEN P. DILANGALEN, RESPONDENTS.

D E C I S I O N

PERALTA, J.:

This resolves the Petition for Certiorari under Rule 65 of the Rules of Court, praying that the Decision of the House of Representatives Electoral Tribunal (HRET), dated September 10, 2009, and its Resolution dated November 12, 2009, be declared null and void ab initio.

The narration of facts in the HRET Decision is not disputed by the parties. Pertinent portions thereof are reproduced hereunder:

On 12 June 2007, protestant Bai Sandra S.A. Sema, a congressional candidate of the Lakas-CMD who obtained 87,237 votes or 18,345-vote difference from protestee Dilangalen, who obtained 105,582 votes, filed an election protest against the latter. Allegedly, it was on 1 June 2007, when the Provincial Board of Canvassers of Shariff Kabunsuan proclaimed protestee Didagen P. Dilangalen as Representative of the Lone District of Shariff Kabunsuan with Cotabato City (as no certified true copy of the Certificate of Canvass of Votes and Proclamation of the Winning Candidate for Member of the House of Representatives was attached to the protest).

Protestant Sema is protesting a total of 195 precincts of the Municipality of Datu Odin Sinsuat of the Lone District of Shariff Kabunsuan with Cotabato City, based on the following grounds:

1. The various Boards of Election Inspectors (BEI), in connivance with the protestee, deliberately and wrongfully read, appreciated, and/or tabulated the votes appearing in the ballots that were lawfully and validly cast in favor of the protestant as votes cast for the protestee;

2. Ballots containing valid votes cast for the protestant were misappreciated and considered as marked ballots and declared null and void;

3. Ballots prepared by persons other than the voters themselves, and fake or unofficial ballots wherein the name of the protestee was written, were illegally read and counted in favor of the protestee;

4. Ballots wherein no name of any candidate for Member of the House of Representatives was written in the blank space for the said position were illegally read and counted in favor of the protestee;

5. Valid votes entered in the ballots in favor of the protestant were considered stray;

6. Groups of ballots wherein the protestee was voted as Representative but which were evidently prepared by one (1) person were purposely considered as valid ballots and counted in favor of the protestee;

7. Individual ballots wherein the protestee was voted as Representative but which were evidently prepared by two (2) or more persons were purposely considered as valid ballots and counted in favor of the protestee;

8. Ballots wherein the protestee was voted as Representative but were void because stickers were posted unto them, and/or because of other patent or pattern markings appearing on them, were unlawfully read and counted in favor of the protestee;

9. The protestee and his supporters illegally switched the ballots and election returns to manipulate the results;

10. The election returns purportedly coming from these precincts that were used in the canvassing by the Provincial Board of Canvassers bear badges of fraud or irregularity, such as the uniform appearance and pattern of writing of taras, showing that they are manufactured and prepared in an environment that allowed the people who prepared them the luxury of time, convenience and comfort;

11. The election returns purportedly coming from these precincts that were used in the canvassing are spurious as they did not contain the thumbmarks and/or the signatures of the members of the BEI;

12. The election returns purportedly coming from these precincts that were used in the canvassing by the Provincial Board of Canvassers were spurious as they were thumbmarked and/or signed by persons who were not members of the BEI on record;

13. The election returns purportedly coming from these precincts that were used in the canvassing by the Provincial Board of Canvassers appear to have been tampered with to increase the votes for the protestee recorded therein, as shown by the additional taras in the row for the protestee that are in handwriting different from the other taras;

14. The total number of votes for the position of Member of the House of Representatives in the election returns purportedly coming from these precincts that were used in the canvassing by the Provincial Board of Canvassers exceeded the total number of registered voters in these precincts;

15. The total number of votes for the position of Member of the House of Representatives in the election returns purportedly coming from these precincts that were used in the canvassing by the Provincial Board of Canvassers exceeded the total number of voters who actually voted;

16. The protestee engaged in pervasive vote-buying in order to induce the people voting in these precincts to vote for him;

17. The protestee engaged in the so-called negative vote-buying to induce people who would have voted for protestant not to cast their votes anymore;

18. The protestee employed and deployed "flying voters" to unlawfully increase the votes cast in his favor;

19. The protestee employed armed men to terrorize and intimidate voters and compel them to vote for him;

20. The protestee, employing armed men to terrorize and intimidate the protestant's supporters, prevented them from casting their votes in these precincts; and

21. The protestee, employing armed men to terrorize and intimidate the members of the BEI in these precincts, coerced the said election inspectors to manipulate the counting and tallying of the votes for the position of the Member of the House of Representatives by padding the tallied votes cast for the protestee and/or reducing the tallied votes for the protestant.

On July 19, 2007, protestee filed an Answer with Counter-Protest, counter-protesting 198 clustered/merged precincts in Sultan Kudarat and 50 precincts in Sultan Mastura on the following grounds:

(i) The duly appointed watchers of herein protestant [Dilangalen] were not allowed by the protestee [Sema] and her supporters to enter the hereunder enumerated protested precincts and to [obersve] the casting of votes as well as the counting of votes by the Board of Election Inspectors (BEI's);

(ii) The ballots in most of the protested precincts were written by only one or two persons indicating that no actual voting took place.

(iii) Flying voters were employed by the protestee and her supporters.

(iv) Protestee engaged in massive vote-buying during the campaign period and even during the election day.

(v) Registered voters in the protested municipalities, who are active supporters of herein protestant, were prevented by the protestee and her supporters, through violence and intimidation, from casting their votes.

(vi) In connivance with herein protestee, the members of the BEI's in most of the protested precincts merely filled up the Election Returns giving protestee a wide margin over herein protestant.

(vii) During the canvassing before the Municipal Board of Canvassers, the votes allegedly obtained by the protestee were padded by the members of the board of canvassers in favor of the protestee.

(viii) Obviously manufactured election returns, prepared by the protestee and her supporters were used during the canvassing by the Municipal Board of Canvassers in the protested Municipalities.

From September 16-29, 2008, the Tribunal conducted revision of ballots in all the contested precincts. During the revision of ballots, it was discovered that only one (1) out of the 248 ballot boxes of the counter-protested precincts contained ballots. The other 247 counter-protested ballots were totally empty or did not contain ballots and election documents. The results of revision of ballots in the 195 protested precincts and one (1) counter-protested precinct are shown in the Table below.


Protestant Sema Protestee Dilangalen
Votes per election returns
2,238
33,707
Votes per physical count
2,794
32,603


On November 27, 2008, protestant filed her Formal Offer of Exhibits x x x.

x x x x

On January 22, 2009, protestee filed his Comment (on the Formal Offer of Exhibits of the Protestant) x x x.

x x x x

On May 13, 2009, protestee filed his Formal Offer of Evidence x x x.

x x x x

On May 20, 2009, protestant filed her Comment/Objections (Re: Protestee's Formal Offer of Evidence), x x x.

x x x x

The Tribunal received the memoranda of the parties on June 25, 2009.

Protestant seeks a resolution of her protest by way of appreciation of ballots, asserting that the spurious ballots containing votes for protestee be rejected and be themselves considered as proof that the will of the people was thwarted by election fraud in the protested 195 precincts of Datu Odin Sinsuat.

On the other hand, protestee belied protestant's allegation of fraud invoking the presumptions stipulated by the parties and his reliance in the stipulated testimony of then Acting Municipal Treasurer of Datu Odin Sinsuat, Aladin D. Abdullah, vice Municipal Treasurer Datu Eden Ala, who inhibited himself being a relative of a local candidate, that in such capacity she distributed to the different Boards of Election Inspectors (BEIs) in the municipality of Datu Odin Sinsuat the same official ballots, election returns and other election documents which she received from the COMELEC. To protestee, the votes for him were cast by the voters themselves in official ballots validly read for him, and the entries in the objected ballots were not written by the voters themselves.

In contrast to her position in respect to the votes in Datu Odin Sinsuat, as regards the counter-protested precincts in Sultan Kudarat and Sultan Mastura, where protestant was shown to have attained higher number of votes than protestee based on available official results, but when the ballot boxes of 247 out of 248 precincts were opened during revision, they yielded no ballots and other election documents, protestant asserts that determination of votes of the parties should be based on sources other than the missing ballots.[1]

The tribunal summarized the issues as follows:

I. Whether or not there were election irregularities, anomalies or errors committed during the May 14, 2007 elections which will nullify the votes counted and canvassed for each party, or stated differently, whether the irregularities uncovered during revision and appreciation, among others, were committed during or after the elections.

II. Who is the real winner in the May 14, 2007 congressional elections for the Lone District of Shariff Kabunsuan with Cotabato City after a revision and appreciation of the ballots?[2]

On September 10, 2009, the HRET issued the assailed Decision. The HRET found that majority of the ballots in the 195 protested precincts of Datu Odin Sinsuat were rejected as fake or spurious ballots since they did not contain security features described by Commissioner Resurreccion Borra of the Commission on Elections (COMELEC). It was also pointed out that "Reports on Revision Results, duly signed by both parties' revisors, showed that during the revision, all the ballot boxes in the 195 protested precincts of Datu Odin Sinsuat had no self-locking metal seals x x x, [t]hus, it cannot be conclusively stated, that the ballot boxes at the time that they were opened for revision purposes were in the same condition as they were when closed by the Chairman and Members of the Board of Election Inspectors (BEI) after the completion of the canvassing proceedings." On the other hand, only one (1) out of the 248 ballot boxes of the counter-protested precincts contained ballots. Nevertheless, the HRET ruled that petitioner failed to prove by convincing evidence that the election itself, conducted on May 14, 2007, was tainted by fraud and irregularities that frustrated the will of the electorate. The HRET concluded that the ballots and/or ballot boxes must have been tampered with after the elections and the counting and canvassing of votes. Thus, the HRET relied on the election returns and other election documents to arrive at the number of votes validly cast for petitioner and respondent Dilangalen.

The dispositive portion of the assailed Decision reads as follows:

WHEREFORE, the Tribunal DISMISSES the instant election protest; AFFIRMS the proclamation of protestee Didagen P. Dilangalen; and DECLARES him to be the duly elected Representative of the Lone District of Shariff Kabunsuan with Cotabato City.

Pursuant to Rule 96 of the 2004 Rules of the House of Representatives Electoral Tribunal, as soon as this Decision becomes final and executory, let notice hereof be sent to the President of the Philippines, the House of Representatives through the Speaker and the Commission on Audit, through its Chairman.

No pronouncement as to costs.

SO ORDERED.[3]

Petitioner moved for reconsideration, but the same was denied in a Resolution dated November 12, 2009.

Hence, this petition, where it is alleged that:

A.

THE RESPONDENT HRET COMMITTED GRAVE ABUSE OF DISCRETION AMOUNTING TO LACK OR EXCESS OF JURISDICTION IN RULING THAT PETITIONER HAD NOT SUCCESSFULLY PROVEN BY CONVINCING EVIDENCE THAT THE CONTESTED ELECTION WAS ATTENDED BY FRAUDS AND IRREGULARITIES WHEN THE PETITIONER PRESENTED OVERWHELMING EVIDENCE OF FRAUD EXEMPLIFIED BY THE DISCOVERY DURING REVISION OF THE NUMEROUS SPURIOUS BALLOTS FOR RESPONDENT DILANGALEN INSIDE THE BALLOT BOXES.

B.

THE RESPONDENT HRET GRAVELY ABUSED ITS DISCRETION IN A MANNER AMOUNTING TO LACK OR EXCESS OF JURISDICTION WHEN IT RULED THAT THE SPURIOUS BALLOTS CONTAINING VOTES FOR RESPONDENT DILANGALEN THAT WERE FOUND INSIDE THE BALLOT BOXES DURING REVISION PROCEEDINGS WERE INTRODUCED INTO SAID BALLOT BOXES AFTER, AND NOT DURING THE ELECTIONS, WHEN SUCH DEDUCTION WAS NOT SUPPORTED BY ANY OF RESPONDENT DILANGALEN'S EVIDENCE, THEREBY DEVIATING FROM THE BASIC RULE THAT WHEN WHAT IS INVOLVED IS THE CORRECTNESS OF THE NUMBER OF VOTES OF EACH CANDIDATE, THE BEST AND MOST CONCLUSIVE EVIDENCE ARE THE BALLOTS THEMSELVES.

C.

THE RESPONDENT HRET COMMITTED GRAVE ABUSE OF DISCRETION AMOUNTING TO LACK OR EXCESS OF JURISDICTION IN NOT DEDUCTING FROM THE TOTAL NUMBER OF VOTES CREDITED TO RESPONDENT DILANGALEN THE FRAUDULENT BALLOTS IN HIS NAME THAT WERE DISCOVERED DURING THE REVISION PROCEEDINGS.

D.

THE RESPONDENT HRET GRAVELY ABUSED ITS DISCRETION IN A MANNER AMOUNTING TO LACK OR EXCESS OF JURISDICTION IN AFFIRMING THE PROCLAMATION OF RESPONDENT DILANGALEN WHEN THE NUMBER OF VALID VOTES WHICH REMAINED AFTER DEDUCTING THE SPURIOUS BALLOTS COUNTED FOR HIM WAS LESS THAN THE NUMBER OF VOTES LEGALLY OBTAINED BY HEREIN PETITIONER.[4]

The above allegations boil down to the issue of whether the HRET committed grave abuse of discretion amounting to lack or excess of jurisdiction by relying on election returns and other election documents, instead of the ballots themselves, in determining who actually won in the May 14, 2007 congressional elections for the Lone District of Shariff Kabunsuan with Cotabato City.

The Court finds the petition unmeritorious.

At the outset, it must be emphasized that this Court is not a trier of facts and its jurisdiction to review decisions and orders of electoral tribunals is exercised only upon a showing of grave abuse of discretion committed by the tribunal. Absent such grave abuse of discretion, this Court shall not interfere with the electoral tribunal's exercise of its discretion or jurisdiction.[5] Grave abuse of discretion has been described in Juan v. Commission on Elections,[6] as follows:

Grave abuse of discretion arises when a lower court or tribunal violates the Constitution, the law or existing jurisprudence. It means such capricious and whimsical exercise of judgment as would amount to lack of jurisdiction; it contemplates a situation where the power is exercised in an arbitrary or despotic manner by reason of passion or personal hostility, so patent and gross as to amount to an evasion of positive duty or a virtual refusal to perform the duty enjoined by law. The office of a petition for certiorari is not to correct simple errors of judgment; any resort to the said petition under x x x Rule 65 of the 1997 Rules of Civil Procedure is limited to the resolution of jurisdictional issues. Thus, it is imperative for the petitioner to show caprice and arbitrariness on the part of the COMELEC [or, in this case, the tribunal] whose exercise of discretion is being assailed.[7]

There is no cavil of doubt as to the factual findings regarding the fake ballots in the 195 precincts in Datu Odin Sinsuat, or the lost ballots for the 247 ballots boxes from the counter-protested precincts. What petitioner questions is the Tribunal's reliance on election returns and/or tally sheets and other election documents to arrive at the number of votes for each of the parties. However, jurisprudence has established that such action of the HRET was well within its discretion and jurisdiction.

Indeed, the general rule is, if what is being questioned is the correctness of the number of votes for each candidate, the best and most conclusive evidence is the ballots themselves. However, this rule applies only if the ballots are available and their integrity has been preserved from the day of elections until revision. When the ballots are unavailable or cannot be produced, then recourse can be made to untampered and unaltered election returns or other election documents as evidence.[8]

Petitioner admits in her petition that elections were actually held in Datu Odin Sinsuat. Both parties agreed with the HRET's findings of fact that majority of the ballots in the 195 protested precincts of Datu Odin Sinsuat were fake or spurious ballots, and all the ballot boxes in the 195 protested precincts of Datu Odin Sinsuat had no self-locking metal seals. Neither do they dispute that only one (1) out of the 248 ballot boxes of the counter-protested precincts contained ballots. The parties have not presented any evidence that there were any incidents of ballot snatching or switching on May 14, 2007- the day of the election itself. On the contrary, the only evidence on record, i.e., the affidavits of the Chief of Police of Sultan Kudarat, Philip M. Liwan (Exhibit "1"); the Station Commander at Sultan Mastura, John R. Calinga (Exhibit "3"), and the Election Officer of Datu Odin Sinsuat, Raufden A. Mangelen (Exhibit "4"), all attest to the fact that there were no such incidents of switching nor were there reports of violence or irregularities during the casting, counting and canvassing of votes. Thus, as concluded by the HRET, when said ballot boxes were opened for revision purposes, they could not be said to be in the same condition as they were when closed by the Chairman and Members of the BEI after the completion of the canvassing proceedings.

In Rosal v. Commission on Elections,[9] the Court ruled, thus:

x x x where a ballot box is found in such a condition as would raise a reasonable suspicion that unauthorized persons could have gained unlawful access to its contents, no evidentiary value can be given to the ballots in it and the official count reflected in the election return must be upheld as the better and more reliable account of how and for whom the electorate voted.[10]

Significantly, nothing on record shows that the election returns, tally sheets and other election documents that the HRET had on hand had been tampered or altered. Since it is undisputed that there are hardly any valid or authentic ballots upon which the HRET could base its determination of the number of votes cast for each of the parties, the HRET merely acted in accordance with settled jurisprudence when it resorted to untampered and/or unaltered election returns and other election documents as evidence of such votes.

In sum, there is no showing whatsoever that the HRET committed grave abuse of discretion.

WHEREFORE, the instant petition is DISMISSED. The Decision and Resolution of the House of Representatives Electoral Tribunal, dated September 10, 2009 and November 12, 2009, respectively, are AFFIRMED.

SO ORDERED.

Carpio, Carpio Morales, Velasco, Jr., Nachura, Leonardo-De Castro, Brion, Bersamin, Del Castillo, Abad, Villarama, Jr., Perez, and Mendoza, JJ., concur.
Puno, C.J., on official leave.
Corona, J., no part.



[1] Rollo, pp. 26-30.

[2] Id. at 39.

[3] Id. at 59-60.

[4] Id. at 10-11.

[5] Juan v. Commission on Elections, G.R. No. 166639, April 24, 2007, 522 SCRA 119, 128; Abubakar v. House of Representatives Electoral Tribunal, G.R. Nos. 173310 and 173609, March 7, 2007, 517 SCRA 762, 776; Torres v. House of Representatives Electoral Tribunal, G.R. No. 144491, February 6, 2001, 351 SCRA 312, 326-327.

[6] Supra, at 128-129.

[7] Id. at 128-129. (Emphasis supplied.)

[8] Rosal v. Commission on Elections, G.R. Nos. 168253 and 172741, March 16, 2007, 518 SCRA 473, 488-489; Abubakar v. House of Representatives Electoral Tribunal, supra note 5, at 774; Torres v. House of Representatives Electoral Tribunal, supra note 5, at 326, citing Lerias v. House of Representatives Electoral Tribunal, 202 SCRA 808 (1991). (Emphasis supplied.)

[9] Supra.

[10] Id. at 496. (Emphasis supplied.)
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