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Voting in Brazil

Its electoral process faces two challenges: party fragmentation and campaign finance.

February 21, 2015 12:54:44 am
Brazil, voting In the 2014 elections, the vote counting of the first round of the presidential election was the fastest in the history of Brazil ECS. (Source: Reuters photo/File)

By José Antonio Dias Toffoli

Brazil is experiencing the greatest period of democratic stability since its current constitution was enacted in 1988. The basis of our democracy was considerably enhanced with the 1988 constitution. The republican principle that people are capable of self-government and choosing their representatives is achieved by universal suffrage and the direct and secret vote of citizens, as determined in Article 14 of the Federal Constitution. In Brazil, voting is compulsory for citizens over 18 and is optional for illiterate citizens, citizens 70 years of age and older, and for those aged between 16 to 18. Today, the percentage of voters is 75 per cent of the population. We are currently the world’s fourth-largest democracy, with over 142.8 million voters, surpassed only by India, the United States and Indonesia.

The Electoral Court System (ECS), created in 1932, plays a critical role. It is liable for organising, overseeing and ruling on elections in Brazil. Its performance in both administrative and organisational fields encompasses the organisation of registration of voters and political parties, as well as the disclosure of election results and the investiture ceremony of elected candidates. Concerning jurisdiction, it is liable to rule on election-related conflicts, such as denial of applications for candidacy registration, and on actions subject to its jurisdiction due to deviations, such as abusive advertising in media, abuse of power by virtue of the use of the public apparatus and votes unlawfully obtained, which may lead to loss of registration of the candidate or even dismissal of the representative elected. In addition, it is liable to edit regulatory resolutions of general rules of election laws in force, as well as for answering consultations regarding elections.

The organisational structure of the ECS constitutes a peculiar and creative system for controlling elections, which combines the impartiality of the judicial branch with the temporary nature of the exercise of electoral duty. Although the ECS is permanent and part of the judicial branch, it is not made up of a body of magistrates of its own. Judges are borrowed from other courts and, therefore, their mandates are provisional. For example, the highest body of the ECS, the Superior Electoral Court — which I have the honour to preside over — is comprised of three ministers of the Federal Supreme Court, two ministers of the Superior Court of Justice and two jurists chosen by the president of Brazil from a three-name list forwarded by the Supreme Court.

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The ECS seeks to increasingly develop safety levels of elections. With the electronic voting machine, launched in 1996, it was ensured votes cast equal votes counted. It was also important to guarantee “one person, one vote”. To achieve this, we had, in the 2014 elections, the significant advance of the biometric identification of voters, by means of fingerprints, thus certifying each Brazilian voter voted only once.

The success of the Brazilian electoral process should not be measured by electronic voting alone, although this is its most visible sign. The electoral process adopted in the country is second to none in terms of agility in vote-counting and disclosing results. In the 2014 elections, the vote counting of the first round of the presidential election was the fastest in the history of our ECS, with the disclosure of the mathematical result (91 per cent of valid votes counted) coming only 56 minutes after voting closed. In the second round, 1 hour and 27 minutes after the end of voting, I was in a position to announce that, with 98 per cent of votes counted, we had reached mathematically irreversible results: Dilma Rousseff had by then obtained 51.45 per cent of valid votes while Aécio Neves had 48.55 per cent.

We are also studying a project to use biometric identification in the creation of a national registration of Brazilian citizens to be managed by the ECS. The experience of India is this regard is inspiring.


In the years ahead, Brazil’s democracy and its electoral process face two main challenges. First, it is necessary and critical to discuss at length the role of political parties, since they are the sole intermediaries of access to power in Brazil. Such a debate should encompass the evaluation of the electoral system itself. Due to the fact that political parties are easily created, we have a total of 32 political associations. In the 2014 general elections, 28 parties won seats in the Federal Chamber of Deputies, which could lead to fragmentation of the party system and risk ungovernability.

Second, it is also necessary to broaden the debate on the funding of Brazilian democracy. Donations by corporations to candidates and parties have been increasing, which contradicts the essence of democracy, as citizenship and voting are not exercised by corporations but by citizens themselves. It is critical to determine legal limits for expenses with electoral campaigns, as well as uniform limits for donations.

There is still much to reflect upon and enhance in the ongoing effort to render the Brazilian process of choosing political representatives ever more equitable, free and responsive to popular will. But it goes without saying that in 2014, Brazil has once again demonstrated its strong commitment to freedom and democracy, voting peacefully in its largest elections ever.

The writer is president, Superior Electoral Court, Brazil

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First published on: 21-02-2015 at 12:54:44 am
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