Speech by H.E. Minister Ellen Gracie Northfleet, Vice-president of the Brazilian Electoral Tribunal, delivered on 20th May, 2003 at the House of Lords, on the occasion of the Annual meeting of the H.S. Chapman Society
"I'm very grateful for the opportunity to be here in this important forum, where we are gathered in order to share experiences in the field of electoral systems. I do believe that more than just choosing among different ways of counting the ballots, what we all care about is improving democracy, that is, making true the ideal of a government by the people and for the people of our countries.
The case of Brazil allows us some reflection. One distinguishing mark of our system is that we have mandatory voting for all people ages of 18 to 70. Voting is optional between the ages of 16 and 18 and for those older than 70.
Our total population is more than 170 million people and the number of those enrolled in the electoral process tops 115 million, or more than 65% of the population. This population is distributed over about eight and a half million square kilometers.
Some places are not easily accessible and this puts an extra challenge on our staff, that has a hard time reaching these localities, installing the voting machines - which in some places have to work on batteries, due to lack of electricity - and, afterwards collecting the results.
Although here and there some voices are heard in support of general optional voting, the fact is that in our country, due to its peculiar historical formation and cultural background, compulsory voting is generally considered to be the right choice. We have low levels of absence even though the ways of justifying eventual "no-shows" are easily accessible and almost without cost. The last general elections showed a rate of absence of 20%. We use some "incentives" for participation in the form of penalties, like a small fine, or retaining wages of civil servants, and requiring that citizens demonstrate they are up-to-date with their electoral duties for all sorts of business transactions. But, as I said, justifying an absence is easily done. What happens is that, as a rule, people enjoy participating and do so with great enthusiasm. Elections are always held on a Sunday, a non working day in Brazil, and a festive one. Rarely are there any violent partisan clashes. A war of banners and shredded paper is the rule in all our cities.
Most of this enthusiasm derives from the confidence that Brazilians have acquired in our voting system, and the fairness of the voting process. Voting starts at 8 o'clock in the morning and stays open until 5 o’clock in the afternoon. Electoral booths are distributed as close as possible to the residence of voters, so that almost everyone throws the ballot "next door" and usually doesn't have to wait long. Last October we used 406,746 voting machines throughout the country.
In last year's elections, voters had quite a lot of choices to make indeed. Voters had to choose among candidates for President, for two Senate positions, one representative for the Lower House, one for the State house of representatives, and one State Governor. There were 18,880 candidates running for office throughout the country.
The two executive positions, State Governor and President required a second round whenever, in the first round, the leading candidate did not reach the "qualified majority" of voters, i.e., half of the voters plus one. As there were several candidates for each of these positions, in most States and at the Federal level a second round was made necessary.
Even with all these difficulties, only 12 hours after the closing of the ballot, we had already tallied 90 percent of the results. By the next morning we had 98%, and within 62 hours all 100%. In the second vote - an easier one, with only two candidates - these time-frames diminished even more (90% in 5 hours and 100% in 25 hours).
We have been using, since 1996, electronic voting machines and the results of this use have been excellent. I invite all of you who would like to give it a try to come at the end of this session for a demonstration of how it works. Materials will also be available containing the technical data.
As of now, this is how it looks. On the right side, the buttons are used to indicate the candidate's number. On this example we are voting for the Federal House of Representatives. A four digit number is allotted to each candidate who uses it in all of his campaign materials. Voters memorize these numbers or may be allowed to bring their candidates' numbers noted down. Inside the booth no one is allowed to give any sort of help to the voters, so they have to be well acquainted with the way the machine works. This has not been a problem.
Training programs have been developed in order to reach even the illiterate, rural or indigenous communities. Intensive television and radio campaigns sponsored by the Electoral Court focus on educating the electoral body. These video clips display a step by step demonstration on how to use the voting machine. Once the four digit number of our example is completed the screen on the left displays the candidate's name and photograph, thus allowing the voter to make sure that a mistaken number wasn't entered. If the image is that of the candidate he or she wishes to support, he then presses the green button to confirm the choice. The machine registers that vote and in a multiple election situation like the one we had in Brazil, last October, it automatically will go on to the next ballot. In this case, that would be for the State House of Representatives. And so on.
Voters with little or no education made use of this voting system without problems. It is a very simple device indeed, user friendly and easily accessible do the visually impaired, and the elderly. The buttons have Braille signals and by using headphones the blind can confirm the name of the candidate whose number he or she has just chosen.
The fact that the whole electoral body could use this device after only four years since its inception gives us a clear sign of its acceptance by the population. Not only the user-friendly characteristics, but the rapid results give people a feeling that they are really empowered to make what changes in government they want.
It was very important to ensure the support of the political parties by inviting them to analyze the software that runs the machines and allowing them to bring in their own technical staff to suggest improvements.
These results were obtained after a long and asserted effort made over the years by the staff and members of the Brazilian Electoral Court. It has been a collective endeavour that began back in 1985 with the revision of the registration of voters, or what we call the electoral census. We still have problems, of course, and these have been analyzed in a detailed report that the Electoral Court sent to Parliament, last January, asking for changes in legislation and the necessary funding for improvement. This report shows a cost of a little more than US$ 2.25 (R$ 6,77) per vote. This price includes polling staff, the polling place, transportation of equipment, training and the instructional television and radio campaign. The machines themselves have an approximate cost of US$ 220, and an estimated life span of 14 years.
Besides, the Electoral Court shares this technology with institutions within the country (as, for instance, University students' elections) and our neighbouring countries such as Paraguay and Mexico, as well.
I thank you all for your kind attention and look forward to your comments.