EXPLAINER: Bolsonaro knocks Brazil’s voting system
RIO DE JANEIRO (AP) — With Brazil’s presidential election just a month off, President Jair Bolsonaro is feeding concern about the nation’s electronic voting system. He has long insisted that the machines, used for a quarter-century, are prone to fraud, though he acknowledged last year that hasn’t been proved. Brazil’s top electoral authority says the system has been tested rigorously and some critics of Bolsonaro say he may be laying the groundwork for an attempt to cling to power if the vote doesn’t go his way – much like former U.S. President Donald Trump, whom Bolsonaro admires.
Here’s a look at Brazil’s electronic vote system.
WHY DOES BRAZIL USE AN ELECTRONIC SYSTEM?
Brazilian authorities adopted electronic voting machines to tackle longstanding fraud. In earlier elections, ballot boxes arrived at voting stations already stuffed with votes. Others were stolen and individual votes were routinely falsified, according to Brazil’s electoral authority.
Electronic machines were first used in 1996 and the first nationwide, electronic-only vote took place four years later. Today, results from more than 150 million eligible voters are presented mere hours after polls close. And no significant fraud has ever been detected.
HOW COMMON IS ELECTRONIC VOTING ELSEWHERE?
More than two dozen countries use some form of an electronic system for national elections, according to the International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance. But 80 percent don’t, and voters in most advanced democracies cast their ballots on paper.
Unlike Brazil, most ballots cast in the United States are hand-marked and tabulated by scanners. Since 2016, U.S. voting jurisdictions have almost completely phased out fully electronic balloting. Louisiana is now the only U.S. state where voting machines don’t produce some type of paper record statewide.
Most voters in the U.S. also cast a hand-marked paper ballot, which is then run through an electronic tabulator to produce results far more quickly than a hand count would do.
In the U.S., a 2018 report by the National Academy of Sciences urged that a voter-verified paper record exist for every ballot cast, with the originals secured in case results are challenged.
Mark Lindeman, director of Verified Voting, a nonpartisan group that tracks use of voting equipment in the U.S., said a lack of physical records makes it harder to fight accusations of fraud.
“The 2020 (U.S.) election showed the value of paper ballots to check election results,” he said. “But it also showed that political leaders can attack any election result they don’t like -- even before the election -- and that those attacks can do harm even when the claims defy physical reality. That’s probably a larger threat to free and fair elections than any current election technology.”
Brazil’s system doesn’t produce a paper record of individual votes, though Bolsonaro has advocated for that.
HOW IS BRAZIL’S VOTING SYSTEM AUDITED?
The electoral authority says voting machines are checked for reliability before, during and after balloting. Votes recorded by each machine can be cross-checked with the overall tallies after the vote.
Election officials acknowledge that hacking is always a risk, but say no one has ever managed to alter the machines’ source code or election results. They say risks are further minimized because the machines aren’t connected to the internet and information is sent only through internal systems, segments of which shut down if alterations are detected.
For this year’s elections, over a dozen institutions — including police, the military, prosecutors and universities — accepted the electoral court’s invitation to audit the machines. During a three-day hackathon in May, some 20 hired experts sought to penetrate the system. None succeeded.
WHEN DID FRAUD ALLEGATIONS BEGIN?
In 1993, then-lawmaker Bolsonaro complained to members of the military that the paper voting system was rigged, and spoke in favor of digitalization. Once electronic voting was implemented, however, he became one of its fiercest critics. In 2015, he proposed a constitutional amendment to introduce printed records of votes that would allow manual recounts. That passed Congress, but arguments it was too costly and could violate the right to a secret ballot led the Supreme Court to block it.
WHAT EVIDENCE DOES BOLSONARO CITE?
Bolsonaro won the presidency in a 2018 runoff, and later vociferously claimed fraud had denied him an outright victory in the first round.
For months, he promised proof was coming, and his administration tasked the Federal Police with scouring the prior 25 years for evidence. Finally, last year he acknowledged, “There is no way to prove the elections were or weren’t fraudulent. There are indications.” Following that admission, lawmakers rejected a new Bolsonaro-backed bill once again seeking to adopt printed records.
Still, Bolsonaro has continued to attack the machines’ reliability. In July, he called dozens of diplomats to the presidential residence to present his claims. He focused heavily on the existence of a police investigation into a 2018 incident in which a hacker broke into the electoral authority’s internal system. The authority, which asked for the police investigation, said the hacker never accessed any voting machines nor their source code and so couldn’t alter the data or compromise results.
The U.S. State Department issued a statement a day after Bolsonaro’ s meeting with diplomats, saying Brazil’s electoral system and democratic institutions are a “model for the world.”
Allegations that the system is unreliable have spread across social media and messaging apps — often in groups backing the president. That is similar to the attacks questioning the security of voting equipment in the U.S. since Trump lost the 2020 presidential election. Republicans in some places have sought to ditch all voting and tabulating machines in favor of paper ballots and hand-counting.
WHAT IS THE MILITARY’S ROLE?
Bolsonaro, a former army captain who has filled his government with military figures, has sought to expand armed forces’ role in elections. As a gesture, the electoral authority invited the armed forces to sit on its transparency commission and propose modifications to the system. On that commission, Defense Minister Paulo Sérgio Nogueira has made a series of statements echoing Bolsonaro’s claims. That has provoked concern at home and abroad about the armed forces — which imposed a 1964-1985 dictatorship — overstepping constitutional bounds and potentially becoming tools in an antidemocratic campaign.
Earlier this year, accompanied by top adviser Gen. Augusto Heleno, Bolsonaro said the armed forces “will not perform the role of just rubber stamping the electoral process, or taking part as spectators.” He suggested the military could conduct a parallel count of the results. The Defense Ministry also sent dozens of questions and suggestions to the electoral authority for potential improvements.
Negotiations with the electoral authority’s president, Alexandre de Moraes, seemed to bear fruit last week. The Defense Ministry acknowledged the success of tests carried out on the electronic machines. And de Moraes accepted the ministry’s proposal to run public pre-election tests using biometrics, with voters identified by fingerprints and photos. It isn’t clear whether such a system could be implemented for the election’s first round on Oct. 2.
Any last-minute changes, even if adopted with the best intentions, could cause instability or create vulnerabilities, according to Lindeman, of Verified Voting. ___ Bridi reported from Brasilia. Associated Press writer Christina A. Cassidy in Atlanta, Georgia, contributed to this report.