20 August 2023

During the municipal elections of 1996 in Brazil, for the first time, 57 cities changed their voting system from paper ballots to electronic voting. It wasn’t long before the rest of the country followed suit. Since 2000, the use of voting machines has been compulsory at all polling stations.

The impact of this change first became apparent following the use of e-voting during the general elections of 1998. The election saw an increase in valid votes from 75 to 90%, which in turn increased political responsiveness towards the poorest voters. An influential study by economist Thomas Fujiwara demonstrates that this led to an increase in public health care spending, thereby improving the utilisation of health services and contributing to newborn health.

In this way, the case of Brazil serves as a model to countries in Europe and around the world, demonstrating how a slight modification of the voting system can improve citizens’ well-being through higher and more equal political participation.

E-Voting in Brazil

The idea of introducing voting machines in Brazil was developed long before it was put into practice. In fact, the Electoral Code of 1932 already predicted the use of voting machines for elections, and established rules accordingly. 

It wasn’t until 1985 that the Supreme Electoral Court (TSE) established a computerised registration of all voters. Following this, the TSE was able to develop and legitimise electronic voting machines. 

Guisppe Janino was the representative of the technical commission established to implement e-voting. He explained in an interview that the main impetus was the promotion of democratic inclusion and the reduction of fraud. “Those citizens who were on the margins of the voting process – with the paper ballots – managed, from then on, to interact with the electoral process. The illiterate, the visually impaired, the indigenous, the elderly, due to the fact that e-voting is intuitive, were better included.”

Regarding opposition to e-voting, Janino concludes that “the electronic ballot box only bothered those who benefited from fraud”. 

Before the implementation of e-voting, voters had to fill in ballots with their preferred candidates by hand. Given the electoral rules in Brazil, the usual paper ballot list format was unsuitable, since voters have hundreds of candidates to choose from. The complex paper ballot system caused many votes to be deemed invalid due to mistakes at a time when “roughly a quarter of adult Brazilians were illiterate”. 

The introduction of e-voting thus acted as a de facto enfranchisement as it secured and facilitated voting by showing a picture of the candidate and making the voter select and confirm the associated candidate number. 

E-voting improves well-being in Brazil

In his study, Fujiwara demonstrates that the introduction of e-voting reduced invalid votes by over 10%. As a consequence, e-voting “increased the share of states’ budgets spent on health care by 3.4 percentage points (p.p.), raising expenditure by 34% in an eight-year period. It also boosted the proportion of uneducated mothers with more than seven prenatal visits by 7 p.p. and lowered the prevalence of low-weight births by 0.5 p.p. (respectively, a 19% and −68% change over sample averages).” 

Overall, Fujiwara concludes that “the Brazilian experience shows that removing obstacles to political participation can have substantial effects on public policy and development outcomes. It also suggests that, when given a chance, even voters with little education know how to make their votes count and use the ballot box to improve their lives.” 

The link between e-voting and well-being

The implementation of e-voting improved health services and newborn health in Brazil only insofar as reduced participatory inequalities led to greater policy responsiveness. The strengthening of a part of the electorates’ voice was translated into higher spending on healthcare, a public service that mainly affects the less educated in Brazil. 

Political scientists have shown that less educated citizens with fewer resources generally have less political information, are less interested in politics, and participate less in elections. Consequently, political parties have fewer incentives to respond to the needs of their less privileged constituents. 

This insufficient responsiveness can be observed in some of the world’s wealthiest countries. In a recent report by the Institute of Fiscal Studies, scholars provide evidence of unequal responsiveness with a focus on the UK. They conclude that “the public has become somewhat less likely to feel listened to,” and that “very large gaps remain across educational, income, and wealth groups in these perceptions.” 

The issue of unequal political responsiveness is especially concerning at a time when economic inequality is growing in both rich and emerging economies. The higher the levels of poverty or inequality, the lower the political participation of those citizens with the fewest resources. In this way, economic and political inequalities may reinforce each other. 

In Brazil, e-voting not only contributed to removing obstacles to participation, but also to breaking a vicious cycle of higher economic inequality and unequal responsiveness. E-voting boosted political responsiveness by reducing participatory inequalities, thereby increasing well-being. 

A comparison with Europe

It is important to note that the successful case of e-voting in Brazil is context-specific. 

The first point that makes the case of Brazil peculiar is that the impetus for implementing the electronic voting system was primarily led by the Tribunal Superior Electoral (TSE), and not by a specific political party or interest group. During its history, the TSE developed a reputation for trustworthiness, which contributed to the general acceptance of its decision to implement e-voting.

By contrast, in European countries such as Bulgaria, where electoral proceedings are highly politicised, attitudes towards e-voting remain sceptical, in part due to media influence. More recently, in the latest Brazilian elections, e-voting was also not free from uncorroborated accusations of fraud – in this case, coming from former President Jair Bolsonaro himself. These cases show that the success of e-voting is not possible without credible electoral bodies and experts who legitimise the implementation process by curbing misinformation. 

Lastly, another factor that makes the Brazilian example context-specific is that the paper ballots in Brazil required a higher degree of literacy compared to electoral systems with fewer candidates where pictures and names can be displayed. In Europe, most countries use “mark choice” ballot paper design, which prevents mistakes at the polls. 

Still, this voting system does not prevent paper counting mistakes, fraud, or vote buying. In addition, countries in the EU such as Poland and Lithuania also display high levels of invalid votes due to complex electoral systems and ballot designs. 

For countries with greater ballot complexity, high levels of invalid votes or electoral fraud, the Brazilian e-voting system may serve as a model to increase political responsiveness and well-being.

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