Case Digest: Vinzons-Chato v. HRET

G.R. No. 204637: April 16, 2013

LIWAYWAY VINZONS-CHATO,Petitioner,v. HOUSE OF REPRESENTATIVES ELECTORAL TRIBUNAL and ELMER E. PANOTES,Respondents.

REYES, J.:


FACTS:

On May 24, 2010, Chato filed an electoral protest claiming that in four of the seven municipalities comprising the Second District of Camarines Norte, the following irregularities occurred: (a) the Precinct Count Optical Scan (PCOS) machines rejected and failed to count the votes, which if manually counted and visually appreciated, were in fact validly cast for her; (b) the PCOS machines broke down in some clustered precincts (CPs) and the ballots were inserted in contingency machines at later times rendering uncertain the actual inclusion of the votes in the final tally; (c) the protocols prescribed by the COMELEC relative to the installation of the PCOS machines and Canvassing and Consolidation System (CCS), counting of ballots, canvassing and transmission of results, and closing of the voting were either not followed or modified making it possible for the tampering and manipulation of the election results; (d) several compact flash (CF) cards in the PCOS machines were reconfigured on the eve of the May 10, 2010 elections; (e) there were errors or lapses in transmitting results from several PCOS machines to the CCS of the Municipal Boards of Canvassers (MBOCs) resulting to the need to manually insert CF cards into the CCS, but in some instances, the insertions were made after significant and unaccounted lapse of time in cases where before transporting the CF cards to the MBOCs, the members of the Boards of Election Inspectors (BEIs) went home first or did private business; and (f) after the closing of the polls, some CF cards failed to show recorded results.

On March 21, 2011, the HRET started the initial revision of ballots in 25% of the pilot protested CPs. The revision ended on March 24, 2011. Per physical count, Chatos votes increased by 518, while those cast for Panotes decreased by 2,875 votes.

On March 22, 2012, the HRET issued Resolution No. 12-079 directing the continuance of the revision of ballots in 75% of the contested CPs. The proceeding commenced on May 2, 2012 and ended on May 9, 2012.

There was a substantial discrepancy between the figures indicated in the ERs/Statements of Votes by Precinct (SOVPs) on one hand, and the results of the physical count during the revision, on the other. Thereafter, the HRET issued Resolution No. 11-208 directing the decryption and copying of the picture image files of ballots (PIBs). The proceeding was conducted within the COMELEC premises. However, Chato alleged that the back-up CF card for CP No. 44 of the Municipality of Daet and the CF card for CP No. 29 of the Municipality of Mercedes did not contain the PIBs. Chato filed before the HRET an Urgent Motion to Prohibit the Use by Protestee of the Decrypted and Copied Ballot Images. The HRET denied Chatos motion through Resolution No. 11-321 issued on June 8, 2011.

Panotes filed before us a petitionassailing HRET Resolution No. 12-079. On her part, Chato instituted a petitionchallenging HRET Resolution No. 11-321. We ordered the consolidation of the two petitions, and both were dismissed in a decision which we rendered on January 22, 2013.

ISSUE: Whether or not the HRET committed grave abuse of discretion when it disregarded the results of the physical count in the 69 CPs when the HRET had previously held that the integrity of the ballot boxes was preserved and that the results of the revision proceedings can be the bases to overturn those reflected in the election return.

HELD: The decision of the HRET is sustained.

POLITICAL LAW election


It bears stressing that the HRETs Order dated April 10, 2012 was issued to resolve Panotes motion to suspend the continuance of the revision proceedings in 75% of the contested CPs. The HRETs findings then anent the integrity of the ballot boxes were at the most, preliminary in nature. The HRET was in no way estopped from subsequently holding otherwise after it had the opportunity to exhaustively observe and examine in the course of the entire revision proceedings the conditions of all the ballot boxes and their contents, including the ballots themselves, the MOV, SOVs and ERs.

Need not be labor the second and third issues raised herein as the same had been resolved in the following wise in Liwayway Vinzons-Chato v. HRET and Elmer Panotesand Elmer E. Panotes v. HRET and Liwayway Vinzons-Chato:

Section 2(3) of R.A. No. 9369 defines "official ballot" where AES (Automated Election System) is utilized as the "paper ballot, whether printed or generated by the technology applied, that faithfully captures or represents the votes cast by a voter recorded or to be recorded in electronic form."

The May 10, 2010 elections used a paper-based technology that allowed voters to fill out an official paper ballot by shading the oval opposite the names of their chosen candidates. Each voter was then required to personally feed his ballot into the Precinct Count Optical Scan (PCOS) machine which scanned both sides of the ballots simultaneously, meaning, in just one pass. As established during the required demo tests, the system captured the images of the ballots in encrypted format which, when decrypted for verification, were found to be digitized representations of the ballots cast.

As such, the printouts thereof PIBs are the functional equivalent of the paper ballots filled out by the voters and, thus, may be used for purposes of revision of votes in an electoral protest.

The HRET found Chatos evidence insufficient. The testimonies of the witnesses she presented were declared irrelevant and immaterial as they did not refer to the CF cards used in the 20 precincts in the Municipalities of Basud and Daet with substantial variances.

To substitute our own judgment to the findings of the HRET will doubtless constitute an intrusion into its domain and a curtailment of its power to act of its own accord on its evaluation of the evidentiary weight of testimonies presented before it. Thus, for failure of Chato to discharge her burden of proving that the integrity of the questioned cards had not been preserved, no further protestations to the use of the picture images of the ballots as stored in the CF cards should be entertained.

Chato attempts to convince us that the integrity of the physical ballots was preserved, while that of the CF cards was not. As mentioned above, the integrity of the CF cards is already a settled matter. Anent that of the physical ballots, this is a factual issue which calls for a re-calibration of evidence. Generally, we do not resolve factual questions unless the decision, resolution or order brought to us for review can be shown to have been rendered or issued with grave abuse of discretion.

For a petition for certiorari to prosper, there must be a clear showing of caprice and arbitrariness in the exercise of discretion. There is also grave abuse of discretion when there is a contravention of the Constitution, the law or existing jurisprudence.

In the case at bar, the HRET disposed of Chatos electoral protest without grave abuse of discretion. The herein assailed decision and resolution were rendered on the bases of existing evidence and records presented before the HRET. The instant petition is dismissed for lack of merit.

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