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In the last ten years, more than 600 million voters have cast ballots using electronic voting machines. Countries as diverse as India, Brazil, Venezuela, and the Philippines now exclusively use electronic voting in national elections, and electoral authorities in countries such as Colombia, Indonesia, and Kenya intend to adopt the technology over the next decade.
But just as adoption of electronic voting has accelerated, particularly in the developing world, resistance to its use has increased in wealthy democracies such as Ireland, the Netherlands, Germany, and the United States. Opposition to electronic voting has been driven by concerns over security weaknesses and the unverifiability of vote counts.
What explains this divergent response to electronic voting? To answer this question, it is instructive to examine the experience of Brazil, the first country to fully embrace electronic voting for all of its elections.
Unlike in the United States, where voters typically choose between two parties in congressional elections, Brazil’s electoral system encourages choice. Creating a giant ballot for hundreds of candidates isn’t feasible, so prior to the full adoption of electronic voting in 2000, election officials required voters to write the name or assigned number of their preferred candidate on the ballot. In a country with relatively low levels of education and high illiteracy, millions found writing the name of a candidate quite challenging. Rather than reveal their inability to write the name of their chosen candidate, many voters would leave the ballot blank out of embarrassment. Others unaccustomed to writing would cast illegible votes. The consequences of this ballot format were stark: in the 1994 elections for the lower house of the legislature, 42 percent of the votes cast were blank or invalidated. Less than 5 percent of votes cast in U.S. House elections are typically left blank or invalidated.
The paper ballot also created delay and facilitated fraud. Vote counters had to interpret the handwriting of the voters and allocate the vote among thousands of candidates, a monumental task that would often take several weeks. In many regions, vote counters bought off by political machines could surreptitiously allocate blank votes to their favored candidates and invalidate votes cast for the opposition. In the northeastern state of Bahia, for example, fraud was used to perpetuate the rule of oligarchic political families, seemingly invulnerable to the increased political competition that accompanied Brazil’s transition to democracy.
In 1996, embarrassed by the fraud, Brazil’s election administrators began a national transition to full electronic voting. The new electronic ballot needed to be usable by those who never had touched a computer before and secure enough to resist the best efforts of political machines. The small battery-powered computer that the officials devised has had enormous consequences for Brazilian democracy.
Between 1994 and 2002, the blank and invalid vote rate in national legislative elections dropped by 34 percentage points. Traditionally, observers attributed the high rate of invalid and blank votes to either dissatisfaction or disinterest in the political system, but the switch to electronic voting revealed that the paper ballot had been effectively disenfranchising Brazil’s poorest and least educated.
Electronic voting also sharply reduced incumbents’ ability to use electoral fraud to hang on to power. Incumbent parties, especially those in states long governed by political machines that emerged during the era of military rule, suffered major electoral losses. In several states in the poorer Northeast, voters witnessed real electoral competition for the first time in decades. Electronic voting isn’t solely responsible for these shifts, but it undoubtedly contributed to the fall of local oligarchs.
In spite of the success so far, security concerns are real. With no voter-verified paper trail, Brazilian election results cannot be audited. Election outcomes cannot be independently checked.
Still, fears about potential problems pale before the more potent memories of disenfranchisement and fraud. Many challenges plague Brazilian democracy, and technology is certainly no cure-all. But the use of electronic voting has broadened and deepened democracy in Brazil. It is no wonder Brazilians don’t share Americans’ worries.
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