Centralized E-Voting Process that Almost Instantly Records the Ballots of Brazil's 140 Million Voters has Drawn Interest from Election Officials in Other Countries, Including the U.S.
Delivering voting machines to locations in the Amazon rainforest can take up to 2 weeks by vehicle, boat and on foot, but votes are transmitted instantly via a secure satellite network. (Flickr photo)
Brazil, which has about 20 million fewer registered voters than the United States, is providing a model for other nations with its use of electronic voting machines.
The Latin American country uses compact, portable voting devices and a centralized process to tabulate even close elections within hours. Adding to the system's efficiency, Brazil's approximately 140 million voters cast their ballot on the same model of voting machine whether they live in Sao Paulo, Campo Grande or villages deep in the Amazon.
The result is quick and reliable results, according to Brazil's elections agency. Speed and logistical solutions are part of the reason many countries, including the United States, are looking to Brazil for how to run reliable, secure and efficient balloting.
Brazil implemented an all-electronic voting system more than a decade ago and has made improvements since. The municipal elections in October, for example, will employ an upgraded version of an Intel Atom-based voting machine that incorporates advanced fingerprint identification capacity.
"I know in the United States it's different," said Giuseppe Janino, secretary of technology for Brazil's Tribunal Superior Eleitoral (TSE), or in English, Superior Electoral Court. "I realize with so many states it's difficult to find a way to have a central, single system."
In Brazil, the move to its present-day method was in response to an outcry from angry and frustrated citizens, according to Janino.
"We had to do something to make the process reliable," he said. "It took 1 or 2 weeks to show results and outcomes were in doubt through the manual process. It was slow, had a lot of errors -- the electoral process was totally untrustworthy."
Reflecting on similar complaints registered about the 2000 U.S. general election, Janino noted the improbability of his country suffering through a controversy like when George W. Bush and Al Gore battled over hanging chad on Florida ballots.
"That wouldn't have happened in Brazil because we eliminate the human interaction at all voting sections," he said. The election secretary added that the absence of paper ballots eliminates the tedious task of recounts, done by hand in the past.
The TSE also hasn't seen cases of mechanical malfunctions that surface from time to time in the U.S., including the DS200 optical ballot scanner used in Florida, New York, Ohio and Wisconsin. Among other "substantial anomalies," the scanner is prone to freezes and misreads ballots, according to a recent U.S. Elections Assistance Commission report. The device built by Election Systems & Software was not decertified by the EAC, but the Omaha-based manufacturer is working to remediate the problems.
Brazil's Nuts and Bolts
Brazil's machines, or urnas, are designed by the government and manufactured by Sao Paulo-based Diebold Procom, a subsidiary of Ohio-based Diebold Inc. that has had the TSE contract since 1999.
Candidates' photos are displayed on the screens of Brazil's electronic voting machines. Source: Brazil TSE (Flickr photo)
Roughly the size of a small toaster oven, the voting machines have a screen activated by a built-in numerical keypad. Voters punch numbers that correspond to the measures or candidates, the latter often displayed with a headshot. Votes are transmitted via a secure satellite network. Battery life is 9-10 hours, which comes in handy at polling places lacking electrical power. A 2-week delivery by vehicle, boat and on foot is typical for locations hundreds of miles into the Amazon, "no easy task," Janino said, as about 15 percent of voters live in rural areas, including rainforest that blankets more than half of Brazil.
The voting machine, which weighs 8.8 pounds, is designed so that even people who do not read or those speaking different languages can successfully make their selections. The visually impaired have an option to hear their votes cast through headphones. Voters can identify themselves with only three fingerprints, a feature piloted in 2008 with 60,000 voters and has since grown significantly.
"We are currently in Phase 2 of the biometric identification program and have around 10 million voters who can identify themselves through their fingerprints in this year's municipal elections," Janino said. "By 2018 we will have 100 percent of the voters biometrically registered."
Although the government has not seen any evidence of fraud since e-voting was first employed, Janino and his department aren't resting on laurels. Hackers are being hired to do their worst to the latest generation of voting system.
"In 2009 we invited hackers to try to get into the system and no one could, so in advance of the next election in October we're inviting more hackers to try again," Janino said. "But they won't be successful."
Mixed Global Acceptance
Workers prepare for the 2010 Brazilian general election at an urban polling location. Source: Brazil TSE (Flickr photo)
Brazil began weaning itself off paper ballots with the 1996 municipal election. One-third of the sections, or what the United States calls precincts, blazed the paperless trail that year. Reports of citizens having trouble adjusting to the new equipment were minimal, according to the TSE. Another third made the transition with the 1998 general election, and when the remainder came on board with the 2000 municipal balloting, top vote-getting candidates weren't the only winners.
"That made Brazil the first country to hold a completely automated election," Janino said.
The second was India. When 380 million Indians cast votes on more than 1 million machines in May 2004, their country's election wasn't the first to be all-electronic, but it was the world's biggest. India, the globe's largest democracy, has used e-voting machines exclusively for national and local elections.
Belgium and the Philippines also use technology in either the voting or counting process for all of their national elections. Countries at various stages of piloting or partially using forms of electronic balloting include the United States, Estonia, Indonesia, Kazakhstan, Nepal, Norway, Pakistan and Russia, according to the International Foundation for Electoral Systems.
Some countries are moving in the opposite direction. Germany banned e-voting in 2009 after a court ruled that the automated process used for the previous 10 years was unconstitutional. Citing issues over adequate privacy and security safeguards, the Netherlands in 2008 decertified its e-voting machines and moved back to paper balloting. Machines still tabulate results, but the sentiment, as stated by the government, is "as long as there is no good alternative, Netherlands agrees with pencil and paper."
Janino shrugs his shoulders when he hears such things. "There are countries that use paper, and people trust that process even if it is manual and slow," he said.
For countries open to the idea of computerized elections, Brazil is happy to share its knowledge, success and even hardware. Costa Rica, Dominican Republic and Mexico have signed agreements to rent the TSE's voting machines for their own elections.
America also has knocked on Brazil's door -- not for equipment, but know-how.
"Delegations from the U.S. have come to Brazil," Janino said. "We help them learn about our process, how we implement, what our experiences have been and advise them to find a way to have a central system."
The latest American delegation to visit was from California, the state with the most registered voters and the greatest number of delegates up for grabs in its June 5 presidential primary.
Recent advancements in Brazil's standardized electronic voting machine include biometric identification. Source: Brazil TSE (Flickr photo)
Secretary of State Debra Bowen, whose job includes serving as California's chief elections officer, has looked closely at electronic voting since 2007 when she commissioned a complete review of software, hardware, source code and documents of voting systems used throughout the state. With the resulting independent scientific analysis as her guide, Bowen supported a system that, as she described, "offers the best of both worlds."
"I chose to favor the transparency of voter-marked paper ballots, which can readily be recounted, coupled with the accuracy and speed of the computer to do the tedious work of counting multiple races," Bowen said.
On all the voting systems she recertified following the audit, Bowen placed tighter use conditions on the components of voting systems that the researchers found were the most fundamentally flawed and vulnerable to security breaches. Those concerns are a big reason the secretary of state doesn't see California being fully automated anytime soon.
"Because of proven technological insecurities and highly publicized government-hacking successes, I don't see any big push toward all-electronic voting in the near future," Bowen said. "Right now, with proprietary closed-source voting systems, entire institutions have to hope that unethical people don't get their hands on source code or software. Our democracy is not built on trust alone; there are checks and balances, and course corrections after lessons are learned."
While an automated election model mirroring Brazil's doesn't seem to be on the horizon for California, all of its 58 county election offices are required by law to provide at least one electronic ballot-marking machine in every polling place. Although generally used by voters with disabilities, the machine may be used by any registrant.
The U.S. agency charged with testing, certifying and overseeing voting systems across the country takes no position on the electronic vs. manual debate.
"The EAC does not endorse any particular type of voting system and state participation in EAC's program is voluntary," said agency spokesman Bryan Whitener. "States determine the type of voting system they use according to individual state laws and procedures."
The EAC, which was created in the wake of the 2000 presidential election turmoil, is established by the Help America Vote Act that sets functional standards for voting systems used in federal elections. These standards will be followed for the third time when America votes for a president in November, be it by human or machine.
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