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Political Science

Votes that really count

Brazil’s electoral system is a model of efficiency and democracy

Arquivo/Agência Estado/AeOn October 7, 2012, 138.5 million Brazilians age 16 and older had been registered to participate in the process of choosing new mayors and city councilors for 5,564 municipalities. Voting is mandatory and those who do not show up at the polls must act within 60 days to justify their absence, under penalty of being fined. In this election, according to the Superior Electoral Tribunal (TSE), 15,601 candidates from 30 parties—many of them having formed coalitions—competed for the title of mayor and about 450,000 sought to be elected to city councils. All had been eligible since June 30, 2012 and during the 43 days prior to the election, parties and coalitions were able to take advantage of free TV time to promote their candidates. A few hours after the polls closed, most cities already knew the names of their future mayors and councilors, and cities having more than 200,000 voters where no candidate had won half the valid votes (50% +1) were making preparations for the runoff, scheduled for October 28, 2012.

When the final results are announced in November, Brazil certainly will have given proof, once again, of the efficiency of its electoral system. “We have one of the most successful models in the promotion of political justice,” claims Fernando Limongi, of the Brazilian Center for Analysis and Planning (Cebrap) and the University of São Paulo (USP). Universal voting is mandatory, the system for registering voters, the electronic balloting system, and even the free TV time—which, in his opinion, should be credited in the account as a form of public campaign financing —are factors that unmistakably helped dilute the influence of special interests, expand participation in politics and, during the past 30 years, strengthen democracy in this country. “The Electoral Justice body and decisions by Congress facilitated access to the polls, enabling voters to express their opinions,” adds Argelina Maria Cheibub Figueiredo, of the Institute of Social and Political Studies (Iesp) at the Rio de Janeiro State University (UERJ).

The evolution of the Brazilian electoral system is the subject of a study being done by the Center for Metropolitan Studies (CEM), one of the Research, Innovation and Dissemination Centers (RIDC) financed by FAPESP, with the collaboration of researchers associated with the Thematic Project entitled Political institutions, standards of executive-legislative interaction and governmental capacity, coordinated by Limongi and Figueiredo, and likewise supported by the Foundation. “Our goal is to analyze the Brazilian electoral system from a standpoint that is less committed to models adopted by the more advanced democracies or to the idea that, in Brazil, catastrophe is always imminent,” she explains.

That same perspective guided the research done by Jairo Nicolau, now at the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro (UFRJ), in the book entitled Elections in Brazil – from the Empire to the present days, recently published by Editora Zahar. “Brazil has one of the world’s longest-lasting experiences with elections, starting 190 years ago, and an electoral system that is among the most efficient, requiring no international observers,” Nicolau emphasizes. “Today we have clean elections, with no threat of fraud. The atmosphere is one of democratic freedom, The voters decide, and their votes are not corrupted, which leads to the creation of a truly competitive environment.”

Brazil’s experience with elections dates back to the days of the Empire. Through indirect means, Catholic men aged 25 and older who were landowners and also met other requirements stipulated by the Ordinances of the Monarchy chose from among their peers the voters who would select the judges, city councilors, and prosecutors. During the First Republic (1889 to 1930), after the institutional foundations of the new regime had been determined—presidential, federalist, with a bicameral legislature—direct voting by literate voters was instituted to select names for executive positions. At the time, there was no requirement for candidates or parties to register in advance. However, according to Limongi, the first competitive and effectively democratic elections were not held until 1945, when Brazil emerged from the Estado Novo, or New State period. “Elections, by themselves, are not enough to classify the nascent regime as democratic. The Electoral Justice body, for example, is part of this broad process of structural transformation of Brazilian society,” he says. But the election that made Eurico Gaspar Dutra president of the Republic, as well as choosing deputies and senators, occurred under exceptional circumstances, he emphasized.  The country was under the command of José Linhares, chief justice of the Federal Supreme Court (STF), who took over after the fall of Getúlio Vargas, got rid of the interventors in the states, and ordered that mayors who were affiliated with political parties be replaced by members of the Judiciary Branch. This served to neutralize the power of local oligarchies. In addition, in that election the legislation restricted the enrollment to candidates who were registered by political parties that had been accredited with the TSE, which required that such a party be supported by 10,000 voters in five electoral precincts. Twenty parties took part in the election in which Dutra, candidate of the Social Democratic Party (PSD), emerged victorious.

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Progress was made in citizen participation in elections in 1950, when Congress enacted the new Electoral Code, thus adopting proportional representation for the Chamber of Deputies, State Legislative Assemblies, and City Councils, but majority rule for election of the president, governors, and mayors, as well as their respective seconds-in-command. Ballots, however, were still printed by the parties. “A voter would be given a santinho (photo of a candidate, with the assigned number).” Before voters entered the booths, someone had to check to be sure they weren’t bringing with them a handful of ballots; this involved coercion and control over the voter,” Limongi observes. The problem would not be resolved until the 1960s, when both majority and proportional contests began using official ballots. “This was a step forward, since it reduced the ability to challenge someone’s vote and exert control over a voter,” he notes.

Voting, however, was a difficult task for an unskilled voter, given the “complication” of having to select or write the names of candidates on the ballot. And so, although participation had been expanded, the number of blank and invalid ballots cast grew. “The cost of voting was very high, and a lot of people were ultimately excluded,” says Limongi. The problem was “attenuated” by the bipartisanism imposed by the military regime—since it facilitated the recording of the names of candidates from the official ballot thus, paradoxically, expanding the right to vote. “In the case of candidates for state and federal deputies, the voter either wrote down the name or number of the candidate or marked an X next to the name of the party.” The number of blank and invalid ballots declined until the 1986 elections when the deputies and senators who would be responsible for drafting the new Constitution were elected, even with voting by illiterate citizens that had been authorized by Constitutional Amendment No. 25 in May 1985. That restriction, incidentally, had already lost electoral importance during the military regime, a period when the illiteracy rate in Brazil declined. “By the time the restriction was dropped, about 80% of Brazilians were already capable of voting,” Limongi concludes.

Electronic voting
The new (1988) Constitution adopted the system of absolute majority, including the possibility of a runoff for selection of the chiefs of the Executive Branch – president, governors, and mayors of cities having more than 200,000 voters—if one of the candidates fails to get more than 50% of the valid votes cast in the first round. On November 15, 1989, direct elections were held for the presidency, after almost three decades.

As it happened, the Constitution also stipulated that the president would serve a five-year term. The result was that in 1994, the dates of the presidential, congressional, and state-level elections coincided. “There were two different ballots: one for the majority-vote elections and another for the proportional contests. The number of blank and invalid ballots exploded,” Limongi recalls. Even more serious was the fraud reported to have occurred in some precincts of Rio de Janeiro, which resulted in annulment of the results of the election for state and federal deputies in that state. “We had to change the method of counting the votes, and the solution was the electronic balloting system,” says Limongi.

Jairo Nicolau notes that the electronic system of voting was already being tested, back in 1990  in certain Brazilian municipalities. In 1996, it replaced paper ballots in 37 cities—state capitals and municipalities having more than 200,000 voters—and, in 1998, it was used for the first time in national elections, in four states and the Federal District, until it was definitively adopted nationwide in 2000.  Since then, the number of blank and invalid ballots has stabilized at about 10%, the risk of fraud has disappeared, and the rate of abstentions from voting has stood at 20%. “The next step will be to use voting machines that feature biometric identification,” Nicolau says.

The success of the representation system in Brazil lies in its potential for representing all significant political forces on election day, in addition to their being allotted some time during the free TV campaign hours.  “We do not have an extreme-right-wing party or any hyper-liberal or nationalist parties in Brazil. But if there were any, they would surely be warmly welcomed,” says Nicolau.