G.R. Nos. 148941-42 - March 12, 2002
TEODORO O. O'HARA, Petitioner, vs. COMMISSION ON ELECTIONS, MUNICIPAL BOARD OF CANVASSERS OF BINANGONAN, RIZAL, PROVINCIAL BOARD OF CANVASSERS OF RIZAL and JOVITA RODRIGUEZ, Respondents.
In this petition for certiorari, prohibition and mandamus, petitioner seeks to set aside the Resolution1 of the Commission on Elections (COMELEC) En Banc that annulled the proclamation of petitioner Teodoro O. O'Hara as elected Vice-Governor, province of Rizal and to proclaim respondent Jovita Rodriguez as the duly elected Vice-Governor of Rizal.
Petitioner and respondent Jovita Rodriguez were candidates for the position of vice-governor, province of Rizal during the May 14, 2001 elections.
On May 19, 2001, upon conclusion of the canvassing of the certificate of canvass coming from the thirteen municipalities and one component city of Rizal, the Provincial Board of Canvassers (PBC) proclaimed petitioner as the duly elected vice-governor with 216,798 votes over respondent Rodriguez's 215,443 votes.
On May 23, 2001, the Municipal Board of Canvassers (MBC) of Binangonan, Rizal filed with the COMELEC en banc, a petition to correct entries in the certificate of canvass of votes, entitled "In the Matter of Correction of Entries In the Certificate of Canvass for the Position of Vice-Governor in the Province of Rizal in the Municipality of Binangonan."2 It was alleged that there were typographical errors in the number of votes garnered by petitioner and respondent resulting in the addition of 7,000 votes to petitioner. More specifically, the MBC of Binangonan claimed:
The MBC of Binangonan submitted the affidavit of Evelyn Ramirez, the Municipal Accountant of Binangonan, Rizal, admitting that she committed the mathematical error.4
On May 25, 2001, respondent Rodriguez filed with the COMELEC a petition to annul the proclamation of the winning candidate for vice-governor of the province of Rizal, and to correct an alleged manifest mathematical error.5 Respondent Rodriguez asserted that after the mathematical error would have been corrected, she would obtain a plurality of 215,422 votes as against petitioner's 209,798.
Petitioner filed his answer to the petition, arguing that there was no manifest error apparent in the certificate of canvass which respondent Rodriguez and the MBC of Binangonan sought to correct, and that respondent Rodriguez's petition was filed out of time.
On July 25, 2001, the COMELEC en banc issued a resolution in the cases, the dispositive portion of which reads:
Accordingly, on July 27, 2001, the PBC of Rizal reconvened. However, petitioner was not notified of the proceedings of the PBC of Rizal.
On the same day, the PBC of Rizal issued another certificate of canvass of votes and proclamation of the winning candidates for provincial officers, and on the basis thereof proclaimed private respondent as the duly elected Vice-Governor of Rizal. Immediately, respondent Rodriguez took her oath of office before Judge Leila Suarez Acebo, Regional Trial Court, Pasig City.
Hence, this petition.6
On July 31, 2001, the Court issued a temporary restraining order directing respondents "to CEASE and DESIST from implementing COMELEC Resolution dated 25 July 2001 issued in SPC Case Nos. 01-165 and SPC Case No. 01-129."7
On August 2, 2001, respondent Rodriguez filed a manifestation alleging that the temporary restraining order issued by this Court has been rendered moot and academic since she had assumed the office of Vice-Governor of Rizal.8
Thus, on August 14, 2001, the Court issued a resolution to the effect that "the temporary restraining order remains effective and is extended to restrain respondent from assuming the office of the vice-governor."9
Petitioner raises the following issues before the Court:
We find the petition impressed with merit.
In any election contest, the ultimate issue is to determine the electoral will. In other words, who among the candidates was the voters' choice.
In this jurisdiction, an election means "the choice or selection of candidates to public office by popular vote," through the use of the ballot, and the elected officials of which are determined through the will of the electorate."10 An election is the embodiment of the popular will, the expression of the sovereign power of the people. Specifically, the term election, in the context of the Constitution, may refer to the conduct of the polls, including the listing of voters, the holding of the electoral campaign, and the casting and counting of votes.11
Election contests involve public interest, and technicalities and procedural barriers must yield if they constitute an obstacle to the determination of the true will of the electorate in the choice of their elective officials. The Court frowns upon any interpretation of the law that would hinder in any way not only the free and intelligent casting of the votes in an election but also the correct ascertainment of the results.12
The petition of the MBC of Binangonan, Rizal, before the COMELEC alleges in pertinent part:
It is apparent that the errors do not appear on the face of the certificate of canvass that respondent Rodriguez sought to be corrected. There is nothing on the certificate of canvass that shows the addition of 7,000 votes in favor of petitioner. Likewise, the MBC of Binangonan failed to specify the one hundred precincts whence the 7,000 votes came. Clearly then, the petition filed by the municipal board of canvassers of Binangonan does not merely seek the correction of a manifest error but calls for the examination of the election returns from the 100 precincts and the recount of the votes therefrom.
As previously stated, the MBC of Binangonan, Rizal explains the discrepancy or error as follows:
This was affirmed by Evelyn Ramirez, the Municipal Accountant of Binangonan, Rizal and tabulator who stated:
Clearly, the MBC of Binangonan and Evelyn Ramirez tried to explain the alleged error by referring to a "preceding page' of a certain document which, however, was neither identified nor presented in evidence. They also mentioned "100 remaining precincts" but neither the COMELEC nor the MBC of Binangonan or PBC of Rizal either the respondents were able to identify the said precincts. In fine, there is nothing on record to show where the "sub-total of 7,000 from the preceding page was carried forward in the addition of the votes of the last remaining precincts" (according to Evelyn Ramirez who attempted to rationalize her "mistake") can be located. These circumstances render their statement suspect.
Despite the confusing explanation of the MBC of Binangonan, the COMELEC relied heavily thereon when it issued the assailed resolution. The correction of the certificate of canvass necessitates the examination of several documents which the MBC of Binangonan and Evelyn Ramirez mentioned in their petition and affidavit, respectively. Specifically, the correction of the MBC of Binangonan's mistake, if any, requires the examination of the election returns of the alleged "100 precincts" and the supposed "preceding page." The COMELEC cannot simply rely on the Statement of Votes per precinct submitted by respondents to determine the true mandate of the electorate of Rizal considering that these Statements of Votes were prepared by the very same members of the MBC of Binangonan, Rizal who claimed to have made a mistake due to "fatigue, sleepless nights and physical exhaustion." Reliance on the Statement of Votes per precinct would have been proper had the COMELEC determined if these individuals did not commit any other mistake in the tabulation or preparation of the Statements of Votes.
Indeed, the alleged error which the COMELEC perceived to be manifest from the certificate of canvass does not fall under the definition of "manifest error" which we laid down in the case of Trinidad vs. Commission on Elections:15
In the case of Chavez vs. Comelec,16 this Court explained that:
The alleged error which the MBC of Binangonan committed and which it attributes to physical exhaustion and sleepless nights, is obviously not a plain error apparent from the Certificate of Canvass. It would have been more prudent to order at least the examination of the election returns to verify the existence of the alleged error instead of concluding outright that the Statements of Votes submitted by respondents were accurate and correctly prepared. A more thorough study of the matter would have been more appropriate under the circumstances specially considering that what is at stake is the sanctity of the right of suffrage which we are bound to uphold.
Equally important to note is the fact that the COMELEC relied heavily on the self-serving affidavits of the members of the MBC of Binangonan, Rizal, in order to justify its ruling, completely forgetting that reliance thereon has long been frowned upon because:
The aforequoted case was later on cited in Casimiro vs. Comelec:18
As correctly pointed out by the petitioner, the affidavits and supposed admissions of the members of the MBC of Binangonan have no probative value and cannot, therefore, be the basis of the nullification of his proclamation.
In this connection, it must be noted that in its petition, the MBC of Binangonan stated that Evelyn Ramirez had her tabulation typed "by her typist purposely to finalize the subject Certificate of Canvass for signatures of the chairman and members of the municipal board of canvassers before submitting the same to the provincial board of canvassers for canvassing and proclamation of the winners.19 Otherwise stated, the MBC of Binangonan alleged that the Certificate of Canvass which the COMELEC ordered corrected was prepared by another person who neither testified nor executed a sworn statement. On this score, it is more justifiable to disregard the claims of the MBC and the affidavit of Evelyn Ramirez.
Significantly, the "careful process" observed by the COMELEC in resolving the instant case consisted of only two (2) hearings:
Considering the factual issues involved, the COMELEC should have conducted further investigation or at least a technical inspection or examination of election returns to verify the existence of the alleged error before it gave credence to the statements of the MBC of Binangonan and concluding outright that the Statement of Votes submitted by respondents were accurate. The COMELEC cannot simply rely on these Statement of Votes because they were prepared by the same members of the MBC who claimed to have made a mistake due to "fatigue, sleepless nights and physical exhaustion." It would have been more prudent to make a determination whether these same individuals committed any other mistake in the tabulation or statement of votes.
Even based on the statements/affidavits of the MBC of Binangonan, it is apparent that the errors sought to be corrected do not appear on the face of the certificate of canvass. As above-stated, the alleged error which the COMELEC perceived to be manifest does not fall under the definition of "manifest error" which was laid down in Trinidad vs. COMELEC and Chavez vs. COMELEC.
Section 7, Rule 27 of the Revised Rules of Procedure of the COMELEC does not apply to the case at bar because it refers to correction of errors by the board of canvassers before a candidate can be proclaimed. Thus, had the alleged error really been manifest, respondent surely would have sought the correction before the Board of Canvassers even before petitioner was proclaimed as the winning candidate.
Considering, however, that petitioner had already been proclaimed as the Vice-Governor of Rizal, respondents filed their petitions with the COMELEC. The applicable provision, therefore, is Section 5 of Rule 27 which states:
The above-quoted provision requires that the correction be one involving a manifest error such as "a mistake in the copying of the figures into the Statement of Votes or into the Certificate of Canvass." The provision, however, also requires that "such errors could not have been discovered during the canvassing despite the exercise of due diligence."
The rationale for the provision is obvious. If the error sought to be corrected is truly a manifest error, then the matter should have already been raised before the board of canvassers. The exception is if the error is one that "could not have been discovered during the canvassing despite the exercise of due diligence." In the case at bar, the error allegedly committed by the MBC of Binangonan, which it attempted to describe and rationalize in their affidavits, is one that should have been discovered even with ordinary diligence. The truth of the matter, however, is that the error, even assuming it to be true, is not manifest and was not apparent from the Certificate of Canvass and, therefore, cannot be corrected simply by correction of alleged tabulation error.
Certainly, the present controversy does not merely involve a mistake in the addition of the votes appearing on the Statement of Votes per precinct or an erroneous copying of figures in the Certificate of Canvass. We are called upon to protect the sovereign will of the people of Rizal and not to stifle or frustrate it. Thus, we must employ all means bestowed upon us to safeguard the rule of the majority.
In Aguam vs. Commission on Elections,20 we ruled that:
The Court once more reiterates that the Constitution gives the Commission on Elections the broad power "to enforce and administer all laws and regulations to the conduct of an election, plebiscite, initiative, referendum and recall."21 The Commission indisputably exercises the power of supervision and control over boards of election inspectors and boards of canvassers. The Commission must do everything in its power to secure a fair and honest canvass of the votes cast in the elections.22 The Constitution upgraded to a constitutional status the statutory authority under Batas Pambansa Blg. 881 to grant the Commission broad and more flexible powers to effectively perform its duties and to ensure free, orderly, honest, peaceful and credible elections, and to serve as the guardian of the people's sacred right of suffrage.23
In the absence of any manifest error in the certificate of canvass sought to be corrected, the Commission should have ordered the re-canvass of the election returns or the re-counting of the ballots in the municipality of Binangonan in order to validate the claim of the MBC.
If after the re-canvass of the election returns or the re-counting of the official ballots, the clerical error or mathematical mistake in the addition of the votes had been be established, the Commission should have annulled the canvass and proclamation based on the erroneous certificate of canvass. If the records had borne out that petitioner's proclamation was the result of a clerical error or simple mathematical mistake in the addition of votes and did not reflect the true and legitimate will of the electorate, there could have been no valid proclamation to speak of. The issue would involve a pre-proclamation controversy not proper at this time.24
The wisdom of the order to examine the election returns is in consonance with the Court's holding that:
Should, however, the Commission finds discrepancies in the election returns, Section 236 of the Omnibus Election Code provides the remedy, to wit:
WHEREFORE, we SET ASIDE the Resolution dated July 25, 2001 of the Commission on Elections, en banc.26
The Commission on Elections is hereby ordered:
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