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Thursday, September 30, 2004

electronic voting in Brazil


Brazil has recently become the world pioneer in electronic voting and registration. When it held national elections in October 2002, 91 million out of its 115 million registered voters turned out – more than 70 percent of those of voting age, and 3 million more than voted in the US elections that same fall. In terms of global electoral history, the number of votes received by the winner, Luis Ignacio de Silva (“Lula”), was second only to Ronald Reagan’s total in 1980.

To handle this heavy turnout, Brazil relied heavily on electronic voting. The Tribunal Superior Eleitoral (TSE) had been experimenting with electronic voting systems since the early 1990s, becoming a real pioneer in the use of “DREs” (“direct recording electronic”) voting machines. Brazil first used DREs on a large scale in its 1996 elections, with 354,000 in place by 2002. For that election, it deployed another 52,000 “Urnas Eletronica 2002,” a state-of-the-art DRE that had been designed by Brazilian technicians with the help of three private companies – Unisys and National Semiconductor, two US companies, and ProComp, a Brazilian assembler that has since been acquired by Diebold Systems, the controversial American leader in electronic voting systems.

Because Brazil has been willing to commit to such a large-scale deployment, each Urna costs just $420, less than 15 percent of the cost of the $3000 touch-screen systems that Diebold features in the US. The Brazilian system lacks a touch screen; voters punch in specific numbers for each candidate, calling up his name and image, and then confirm their selections. The numerical system was intended to overcome the problem of illiteracy, which is still a problem in parts of the country. To handle operations in remote areas like the Amazon, the machine runs on batteries up to 12 hours. Initially there were no printed records, but the Electoral Commission decided to retrofit 3 percent with printers, to provide auditable records.

Like any new technology, Brazil’s approach to electronic voting is by no means perfect. Indeed, significant concerns have been voiced about the system’s verifiability and privacy – especially about the TSE’s recent move to eliminate the printers, supposedly because they slowed voting.

Among the most important proposed improvements are a requirement that all voting machines produce both electronic and paper records, in order to leave an audit trail and increase voter confidence in the system; that system software be based on “open” standards and available for audit; and that the system for identifying eligible voters be separated from voting, to insure privacy.

Submerging Markets - September 29, 2004
Democracy in America and Elsewhere: Part IIIB. Campaigns, Voting, and Representation
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