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400 Phil. 551


[ G.R. No. 142507, December 01, 2000 ]




This Court has repeatedly stressed that the importance of giving effect to the sovereign will of the people as expressed through the ballot must be given fullest effect.  In case of doubt, political laws must be interpreted to give life and spirit to the popular mandate.[1] Thus, in Pangandaman v. COMELEC, et al.,[2] this Court emphatically stated that:

[U]pholding the sovereignty of the people is what democracy is all about. When the sovereignty of the people expressed thru the ballot is at stake, it is not enough for this Court to make a statement but it should do everything to have that sovereignty obeyed by all.  Well done is always better than well said.[3] Corollarily, laws and statutes governing election contests especially the appreciation of ballots must be liberally construed to the end that the will of the electorate in the choice of public officials may not be defeated by technical infirmities.[4]

These standards will be the legal yardsticks upon which this case will be judicially assayed.

The facts are not disputed and simple.

Petitioner and private respondent were both candidates for the position of Punong Barangay in Barangay 172, Kalookan City, during the May 12, 1997 Barangay Elections.  Private respondent was proclaimed as the duly elected Punong Barangay having garnered One Thousand Two Hundred Sixty Three (1,263) votes as against One Thousand Ninety Five (1,095) votes obtained by petitioner.

Dissatisfied with the results of the canvass, petitioner filed an election protest case docketed as EPC No. 97-12 with the Metropolitan Trial Court of Kalookan City, which was initially heard by Judge Armando De Asa of Branch 51.  Upon inhibition of Judge De Asa, the case was later re-raffled to Branch 49 of the same court presided by Judge Belen Ortiz.  Petitioner-protestant prayed for the revision of the ballots and other election documents in all the fifteen (15) precincts of Barangay 172.

On April 3, 1998, Judge Ortiz rendered judgment[5] in the election protest case, declaring petitioner Alfredo U. Malabaguio as the winner in the barangay elections held on May 12, 1997 in Barangay 172, Caloocan City.

Private respondent filed a notice of appeal upon receipt of the court's Decision on April 16, 1998.

Meanwhile, petitioner-protestant filed a motion for immediate execution pending appeal, which private respondent-protestee vigorously opposed.  The Metropolitan Trial Court subsequently granted petitioner-protestant's motion in an Order dated May 4, 1998.[6] The said order directed private respondent-protestee to vacate the position of Punong Barangay and turn over the same peacefully to petitioner-protestant who would thenceforth assume the duties of the office pending the final determination of private respondent-protestee's appeal.

The granting of the motion for execution pending appeal prompted private respondent to file a petition for Certiorari, Prohibition and Mandamus with Prayer for Temporary Restraining Order and/or Preliminary Mandatory/Prohibitory Injunction with the COMELEC, docketed as SPR No. 22-98.

With regard to the present case, private respondent filed with the Commission on Election her appellant's brief on November 12, 1998,[7] while petitioner-protestant filed his appellee's brief on December 16, 1998.[8]

Thereafter, the COMELEC's Second Division, through Commissioner Julio F. Desamito, with Commissioners Japal Guiani and Abdul Gani M. Marohombsar Al Haj concurring, promulgated its challenged Resolution of March 11, 1999,[9] the dispositive portion of which reads:

WHEREFORE, premises considered judgment is hereby rendered:

a)  Setting aside the decision dated April 3, 1998 of the Metropolitan Trial Court, Branch 49 Kalookan City, Metro Manila;

b)  Declaring protestee-appellant MIRALI MENDOZA-DURR the duly elected Punong Barangay of Barangay 172, Kalookan City, in the May 12, 1997 barangay elections for having garnered the highest number of VALID votes of One Thousand One Hundred Eighty One (1,181) AS against protestant-appellee Alfredo U. Malabaguio who obtained One Thousand One Hundred Twenty Seven (1,127) VALID votes, or a margin of Fifty Four (54) votes over the latter.

ACCORDINGLY, the Clerk of the Commission (Second Division) is hereby directed to furnish copies of this Resolution to His Excellency, the President of the Philippines, the Secretary of Interior and Local Government, the Chairman of the Commission on Audit, and the Secretary of the Sangguniang Barangay of Barangay 172, District I, Kalookan City, conformably with the provisions of Section 11 (b), Rule 18 of the Comelec Rules of Procedure and Section 260 of B.P. Blg. 881, otherwise known as the Omnibus Election Code, as amended, until finality hereof.


Petitioner filed a Motion for Reconsideration on March 15, 1999,[10] on the grounds that:





On March 22, 1999, petitioner filed a Motion To Admit Additional Assigned Error And To Set Case For Hearing,[11] additionally pleading therein -

3.  x x x  the third assigned error is that the Second Division erred in not appreciating the unsigned ballots in favor of the protestant-appellee.

These twin motions were heard by the Commission En Banc which was denied, by a vote of four (4) to two (2), in the second assailed Resolution dated April 4, 2000,[12] to wit:

WHEREFORE, the instant motions are hereby DENIED for lack of merit and the assailed Resolution of the Commission (Second Division) promulgated on 11 March 1999 is hereby AFFIRMED in toto.  Thus, the protestant-appellee is hereby ORDERED, upon finality of this Resolution to:

  1. Vacate the office of Punong Barangay of Barangay 172, Kalookan City and to cease and desist from performing the functions of Punong Barangay; and

  2. Cause the smooth turn-over of the Office of the Punong Barangay of Barangay 172, Kalookan City to protestee-appellant Mirali-Mendoza Durr, being the duly elected Punong Barangay of Barangay 172, Kalookan City.

Let copies of this Resolution be furnished the Office of the President, the Secretary of the Interior and Local Government, the Mayor of Kalookan City, the Secretary of the Sangguiniang Panglunsod of Kalookan City, the Secretary of the Sangguniang Barangay of Barangay 172, Kalookan City and the Treasurer of the said City and Barangay.


Hence, this recourse by petitioner on the ground that -


The primordial issue to be resolved in this case is whether or not the Fifty-seven (57) ballots cast in favor of petitioner-protestant which do not bear the signatures of the chairmen of the board of election inspectors should be counted in his favor. The question assumes crucial importance considering that private respondent enjoys only a slim winning margin of Fifty-four (54) votes over petitioner.

In invalidating the Twenty-four (24) ballots in Precinct No. 760 and the Thirty-three (33) ballots in Precinct No. 762/762-A which were all cast in petitioner's favor, the majority opinion of the COMELEC relied mainly upon Section 14 of Batas Pambansa Blg. 222 as applied in the case of Bautista v. Castro,[13] which states that:

The law (Sec. 14 of B.P. 222) and the rules implementing it (Sec. 36 of Comelec Res. No. 1539) leave no room for interpretation. The absence of the signature of the Chairman of the Board of Election Tellers in the ballot given to a voter as required by law and the rules as proof of the authenticity of said ballot is fatal. This requirement is mandatory for the validity of the said ballot. (underscoring supplied)

reasoning that the requirement for the authentication of the ballots by election officers is a requirement imposed by law exclusively for the barangay elections.

Aside from Section 14 of B. P. Blg. 222, otherwise known as the Barangay Election Act of 1982, the majority opinion also cited Article VI, Section 43 of Batas Pambansa Blg. 881, the Omnibus Election Code, which provides that:

Section 43. Official Barangay Ballots - The official barangay ballots shall be provided by the city or municipality concerned of a size and color to be prescribed by the Commission.

Such official ballots shall, before they are handed to the voter at the polling place, be authenticated in the presence of the voter, by the authorized representatives of the candidates and the chairman and members of the board of election tellers who shall affix their signatures on the back thereof.  Any ballot which is not authenticated shall be deemed spurious.  (italics supplied).

and Section 6 of R.A. No. 6679 entitled An Act To Amend Republic Act No. 6653 To Postpone The Barangay Elections to March 28, 1989, Prescribing Additional Rules Governing The Conduct Of Barangay Elections And For Other Purposes, which provides:

Section 6.  The official ballots for the barangay elections shall, before they are handed to the voters at the polling place, be authenticated by the Chairman and the poll clerk who shall affix their signatures at the back thereof.  Any ballot which is not authenticated shall be deemed spurious.  (italics supplied).

It is conceded that by reason of the special knowledge and expertise of an administrative agency like the COMELEC over matters falling under their jurisdiction, they are in a better position to pass judgment thereon. Thus, their findings of fact in that regard are generally accorded great respect, if not finality by the courts.[14] It bears emphasis, however, that even decisions of administrative agencies which are declared "final" by law are not exempt from judicial review when so warranted.[15] Factual findings of administrative agencies are not infallible and will be set aside when they fail the test of arbitrariness,[16] or upon proof of gross abuse of discretion, fraud or error of law.[17]

While courts generally will not interfere in matters which are addressed to the sound discretion of government agencies entrusted with the regulation of activities coming under the special technical knowledge and training of such agencies, this Court, however, stressed in Ruby Industrial Corporation v. Court of Appeals[18]that:

The settled doctrine is that factual findings of an administrative agency are accorded respect and at times finality for they have acquired the expertise and inasmuch as their jurisdiction is confined to specific matters.[19] Nonetheless, these doctrines do not apply when the board or official has gone beyond his statutory authority, exercised unconstitutional powers or clearly acted arbitrarily without regard to his duty or with grave abuse of discretion.[20] In Leongson vs. Court of Appeals,[21] we held: "once the actuation of the administrative official or administrative board or agency is tainted by a failure to abide by the command of the law, then it is incumbent on the courts of justice to set matters right, with this Tribunal having the last say on the matter." (Emphasis provided)

The Court was even more explicit in the case of Melendres, Jr. v. Commission on Elections, et al.[22] where it pointedly said:

Stated differently, when an administrative agency renders an opinion or issues a statement of policy, it merely interprets a pre-existing law and the administrative interpretation is at best advisory for it is the courts that finally determine what the law means.[23] Thus, an action by an administrative agency may be set aside by the judicial department if there is an error of law, abuse of power, lack of jurisdiction or grave abuse of discretion clearly conflicting with the letter and spirit of the law.[24] (Emphasis provided).

Succinctly stated -

It is correct to postulate that administrative findings of facts are accorded great respect, and even finality when supported by substantial evidence. Nevertheless, when it can be shown that administrative bodies grossly misappreciated evidence of such nature as to compel a contrary conclusion, this Court has not hesitated to reverse their factual findings.  Factual findings of administrative agencies are not infallible and will be set aside when they fail the test of arbitrariness.[25] In the instant case, we find cogent reasons ... not to affirm the factual findings of the public respondent.[26] (Emphasis provided)

Given the peculiar factual circumstances prevailing in this case vis-à-vis the foregoing legal standards, the Court finds the COMELEC's reliance on 1.] Section 14 of B.P. Blg. 222; 2.] Bautista v. Castro; 3.] Article VI, Section 43 of the Omnibus Election Code; and 4.] Section 6 of R.A. No. 6679, to be misplaced and not well-taken.  As pointedly observed by Associate Commisioner Teresita Dy-Liacco Flores in her well-reasoned dissent -

A rule that has been cast in iron and enunciated in a very long line of cases is that the fundamental intention of the ballots is to ascertain and give effect to the intention of the voter.  That intention would be voided by adopting a straight-jacketed interpretation of the provision requiring the authentication of election officers at the back of every ballot.  For it would otherwise result in the invalidation of the ballot even if duly accomplished by the voter simply because of an omission not imputable to him but to election deputized officials.  This Commission must not deprive a citizen of his constitutional right of suffrage on a very convenient ground that third persons were negligent in the performance of their official duties.  The signatures of the chairmen and the poll clerks of the board of election tellers (board for brevity) at the back of every ballot is only one of the several measures intended to authenticate the ballot, the absence of which can be remedied by examining other authenticating marks in the same ballot.  A contrary ruling would place a premium on official ineptness and make it possible for a small group of functionaries, by their negligence, or worse, their deliberate inaction, to frustrate the will of the electorate.

Section 14 of B.P. 222 provides:

Section 14.  Official barangay ballots. - The official barangay ballots shall be provided by the city or municipality concerned of a size and color to be prescribed by the Commission on Elections.

Such official ballot shall, before it is handed to the voter at the voting center, be authenticated in the presence of the voter, the other Tellers, and the watchers present, by the Chairman of the Board of Election Tellers who shall affix his signature at the back thereof.

Indeed, the above provision relied upon by the majority opinion of the COMELEC does not categorically state that the absence of the authenticating signatures at the back of the ballots invalidates the same.

On the other hand, as correctly found by Commissioner Dy-Liacco Flores, the case of Bautista v. Castro was decided based on then Section 36 of COMELEC Resolution No. 1539, which states in pertinent part:

Section 36.  Procedure in the casting of votes.-

x x x                                             x x x                                     x x x

(f)  When ballot may be considered spoiled.  Any ballot returned to the Chairman with its coupon already detached, or which does not bear the signature of the chairman, . . .  shall be considered as spoiled and shall be marked and signed by the members of the board and shall not be counted.  (Emphasis provided)

However, on February 5, 1997, the COMELEC promulgated a new set of rules to implement the May 12, 1997 Barangay Elections, i.e., Comelec Resolution No. 2888 (Rules and Regulations for the Conduct of the May 12, 1997 Barangay Elections).  The relevant section of this rule provides:

Section 73.  Signature of the Chairman at the Back of Every Ballot. - In every case, the Chairman of the Board shall, in the presence of the voter and before delivering the ballot to the voter, authenticate the same by affixing his signature at the back thereof.  Failure to so authenticate shall be noted in the minutes of the board and shall constitute an election offense. (Emphasis provided)

It is clear, therefore, that under the rules prevailing during the 1997 Barangay Elections, the failure to authenticate the ballots shall no longer be cause for the invalidation thereof.  Rather, the Board of Election Inspectors shall merely note such failure in the minutes and declare the failure to authenticate the ballots as an election offense.

We likewise agree with the dissenting opinion that Article VI, Section 43 of the Omnibus Election Code and Section 6 of Republic Act No. 6679 do not apply to the 1997 Barangay Elections.  We quote with approval the following portion of the dissent:

It is not too difficult to discern why these two provisions quoted above so provide that any ballot not so authenticated by the Chairman and the poll clerk by their signatures shall be deemed spurious.  This is so because the signatures were the only security marking in the ballot produced either by a mimeographing machine or any ordinary printer.  The local government units which were tasked to produce them were not expected to put intricate security markings on the ballot paper such as phantom markings, watermarking or printing security marks.  As the Supreme Court intimated in Libanan v. HRET,[27] the difference in the rules may not be too difficult to discern considering that in those official ballots supplied and furnished by the local government units themselves, the possibility of the ballots being easily counterfeited might not have been discounted.  Hence, the requirement that the chairman and poll clerk authenticate by their signatures at the back of such ballots prepared by the local government units.

Moreover, the second paragraph of Section 43 of the Omnibus Election Code specifically refers to such official ballots.  Does this phrase include all official ballots or does it refer only to a specific class of official ballots?  This distinction is all too important in the resolution of this case because these such official ballots referred to in the second paragraph are the ones required by law to be authenticated, the failure to so authenticate it renders them invalid.  What, then, are referred to when the law mentioned such official ballots? Since such official ballots are stated in the second paragraph, then, it can mean no other than the official ballots mentioned in the first paragraph.  And what are these official ballots referred to in the first paragraph?  These are the official barangay ballots provided by the city or municipality concerned.  Hence, only those official barangay ballots provided by the city of municipality concerned that requires authentication.

However, in the 1997 Barangay elections, the ballots were not provided by the local government unit themselves.  It was this Commission that furnished and provided the official barangay ballots during the 1997 Barangay Elections and these ballots were printed with security markings.  Although the COMELEC General Instructions (Resolution No. 2888) requires the chairman of the board to authenticate the ballots, the same does not provide for the invalidation of the ballot in the event that the board failed to so authenticate it.  Instead, their failure was only considered as an election offense.  It is, therefore, inappropriate to apply the aforequoted legal provisions in this case and rule that these unsigned ballots are spurious.  As these ballots were provided and furnished by this Commission and not by the local government unit concerned, the evil sought to be avoided by these provisions, are more imaginary than real.

Moreover, the Libanan case authorizes the HRET to consider a ballot as valid and genuine for as long as it bears any one of the authenticating marks. It is only when none of these authenticating marks appears that the ballot can be considered spurious and subject to rejection. This Commission adopted a security marking for all official barangay ballots during the 1997 elections.  It is significant to note that an examination of all these fifty-seven (57) ballots reveals the presence of the security markings adopted deliberately by this Commission.  In all these fifty-seven (57) ballots, per printing security markings adopted by the Commission, We see them appearing thereon.

Consequently, the absence of the Chairmen's signature at the back of the ballot should not be a reason to invalidate these fifty-seven (57) ballots which are genuine.  Hence, all votes indicated in these ballots must be counted in favor of protestant-appellee ALFREDO U. MALABAGUIO because the intent of the voters to vote for him is crystal. (Emphasis provided)

Along the same vein, Associate Commissioner Manolo B. Gorospe pointed out in his separate dissenting opinion that -

Election laws and jurisprudence have gone a long way since, and under the caption "electoral reforms", there is an apparent "return to basics" as it were. As may be noted in all election laws, the overriding policy is to determine through the ballot the voters' choice.  The Omnibus Election Code (B.P. 881) articulates this basic rule in the appreciation of ballots: the object of the election is to obtain the expression of the voters' will (Sec. 211). This is the essence of all election laws, be they designed to govern electoral rivalries in the national, regional, provincial, city, municipal or barangay level.

Being the ultimate instrument of sovereignty, a duly accomplished ballot must be preserved and protected in every case and be allowed to flow unimpeded into the mainstream of counting and canvassing, and finally into the proclamation of the electorate's genuine choice.

Commissioner Gorospe, thus, suggests that, "(r)ather than disenfranchise the voter for the act or omission committed by a poll officer at the precinct, (R.A. 7166) accords full respect to the voter's constitutional right of suffrage."

This Court, in Alberto v. Comelec,[28] declared that "election cases involve public interest; thus, laws governing election contests must be liberally construed to the end that the will of the people in the choice of public officials may not be defeated by mere technical objections." Moreover, we reiterate what we said in Maruhom v. Comelec, et al,[29] to wit:

At balance, the question really boils down to a choice of philosophy and perception of how to interpret and apply the laws relating to elections; literal or liberal; the letter or the spirit; the naked provision or the ultimate purpose; legal syllogism or substantial justice; in isolation or in context of social conditions; harshly against or gently in favor of the voter's obvious choice.  In applying election laws, it would be far better to err in favor of popular sovereignty than to be right in complex but little understood legalisms."[30]

All told, we rule in favor of petitioner.  The fifty-seven ballots under question should be counted.  Consequently, petitioner Malabaguio is the rightful winner in the Barangay Election of May 12, 1997 in Barangay 172, Kalookan City.

WHEREFORE, in view of all the foregoing, the Resolutions of the Commission on Elections dated March 11, 1999 and April 4, 2000 in Election Case No. EAC 50-98 are hereby SET ASIDE and in lieu thereof another rendered REINSTATING the Decision of the Metropolitan Trial Court of Kalookan City, Branch 49, declaring petitioner the winner of the May 12, 1997 Barangay Elections of Barangay 172, Kalookan City.


Davide, Jr., C.J., Bellosillo, Melo, Puno, Vitug, Kapunan, Mendoza, Panganiban, Quisumbing, Pardo, Buena, Gonzaga-Reyes, and De Leon, Jr., JJ., concur.

[1] Torayno, Sr., et al. v. COMELEC, et al., G.R. No. 137329, 9 August 2000, p. 20, citing Garay v. COMELEC, 261 SCRA 222 [1996].

[2] G.R. No. 134340, 25 November 1999, p. 2.

[3] Tupay Loong v. COMELEC, 305 SCRA 832 [1999].

[4] Punzalan v. COMELEC, 289 SCRA 702 [1998].

[5] Rollo, p. 96.

[6] Ibid., pp. 100-103.

[7] Id., pp. 105-136.

[8] Id., pp. 137-157.

[9] Id., p. 34.

[10] Id., pp. 158-167.

[11] Id., pp. 175-178.

[12] Id., pp. 65-73.

[13] 206 SCRA 205 [1992].

[14] PMMI v. Court of Appeals, 244 SCRA 770 [1995]; Casa Filipina Realty Corp. v. Office of the President, 241 SCRA 165 [1995]; COCOFED v. Trajano, 241 SCRA 363 [1995].

[15] Cosep v. NLRC, 290 SCRA 704 [1998]; Food Mine, Inc. v. NLRC, 188 SCRA 748 [1990]; Artex Develpoment Co., Inc. v. NLRC. 187 SCRA 611 [1990]; Tiu v. NLRC, 215 SCRA 469 [1992].

[16] PAL v. NLRC, 279 SCRA 445 [1997], citing Zarate v. Olegario, 263 SCRA 1 [1996].

[17] Itogon-Suyoc Mines, Inc. v. Office of the President, 270 SCRA 63 [1997], citing Apex Mining Co. v. Garcia, 199 SCRA 278 [1991]; Assistant Executive Secretary v. Court of Appeals, 169 SCRA 27 [1989].

[18] 284 SCRA 445 [1998].

[19] Alejandro v. Court of Appeals, 191 SCRA 700.

[20] Pajo v. Ago, 108 Phil. 905 [1960].

[21] 49 SCRA 212 [1973].

[22] G.R. No. 129958, 25 November 1999, pp. 11-13.

[23] Peralta v. CSC, 212 SCRA 425 [1992], citing Victorias Milling Co., Inc. v. SSS, 114 Phil. 555 [1962].

[24] Ibid., citing Sagun v. PHHC, 162 SCRA 411 [1988].

[25] Zarate, Jr. v. Olegario, 263 SCRA 1 [1996].

[26] PAL v. NLRC, 279 SCRA 445 [1997]

[27] 283 SCRA 520 [1997].

[28] 311 SCRA 215 [1999]; See also Punzalan v. Comelec, 289 SCRA 702 [1998].

[29] G.R. No. 139357, 5 May 2000, p. 20.

[30] Frivaldo v. Comelec, 257 SCRA 727 [1996].

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