President Jair Bolsonaro in Brasilia, Brazil. Picture: REUTERS/UESLEI MARCELINO
President Jair Bolsonaro in Brasilia, Brazil. Picture: REUTERS/UESLEI MARCELINO

Brazil’s election is 15 months away, but President Jair Bolsonaro warns almost daily of cheating, chicanery and hacking.

With his popularity plummeting amid a criminal investigation over vaccine purchases, Bolsonaro has mimicked former US president Donald Trump by laying groundwork to dispute a defeat. The far-right president and his congressional allies are pushing a bill in congress, which can go to a committee vote as early as this week, requiring the nation’s 470,000 voting machines to generate a paper record of each ballot. Otherwise, Bolsonaro says, hidden actors could manipulate the results.

Electoral authorities warn that changing a 21-year-old electronic system that experts call accurate and efficient could make citizens distrust their own democracy — and introduce opportunities for real fraud.

“Electronic ballots were created to solve the biggest problem in Brazilian democracy, which had always been electoral fraud,” Supreme Court justice Luis Roberto Barroso, who heads Brazil’s electoral court, said in an interview. “Those who criticise Brazil’s system either forgot how it was in the past or weren’t born yet.”

Bolsonaro is questioning the electoral system itself ahead of what will likely be a bruising race against former President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva. Without a paper trail, Bolsonaro insists, the vote will be rigged. He has threatened to cancel it altogether, summoning the spectre of the nation’s authoritarian history.

“Either we have clean elections in Brazil or we don’t have elections,” he told supporters outside the residential palace Thursday.

After Trump’s “Stop the Steal” campaign, which sowed false claims of a rigged election, other defeated leaders have been quick to follow. Former Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu said he faced the “the greatest election fraud” in Israel’s history after losing a snap vote in June. In Peru, presidential candidate Keiko Fujimori is campaigning to have thousands of votes tossed out, delaying the certification of the presumed winner, Pedro Castillo.

Demands to overhaul Brazil’s voting system are a regular feature of Bolsonaro’s speeches, Facebook streams and Twitter account. The president and his allies have made some 200 social-media posts related to vote printouts this year, according to Manoel Fernandes, director of Bites, a Sao Paulo data-analysis firm. Google searches on the topic have surged and memes and chain messages bounce around WhatsApp groups.

“Networks have been completely bombarded,” said Fernandes. “Bolsonaristas have managed to create a narrative about printed votes when, until now, no-one was talking about them.”

High talk

It’s a web of unproven assertions. Bolsonaro has claimed that he had enough votes to win the 2018 election in a single round instead of two. He has said former leftist president Dilma Rousseff actually lost in 2014 to her business-friendly opponent. And a day after the January 6 riots in Washington, Bolsonaro said “we will have a worse problem than in the US” if Brazil uses electronic ballots in 2022.

The electoral court, which oversees and administers voting, requested the president provide proof of his assertions. He has yet to do so. And on Sunday, he clashed with members of the Supreme Court who have already signalled they oppose changing the voting system.

A recent poll found 58% of Brazilians now are now in favour of the paper records, while 55.4% believe the loser in the next election won’t accept the result. In the run-up to the October 2022 presidential vote, the risk is that Bolsonaro continues to ramp up his radical rhetoric to rally supporters against the country's institutions, said Carolina Botelho, a political scientist with State University of Rio de Janeiro.  “He will try to destabilise the political environment,” she said.

Voting is mandatory in Brazil, and takes minutes. On election day, voters file into polling stations, where they present registration cards, sign in and scan their fingerprints before casting an electronic ballot.

Authorities began transitioning from paper, which they say is easily manipulated and violates secrecy laws, after the 1994 elections. “In the old system, there were people who literally ate ballots to avoid counting them,” said Barroso, the electoral court head.

Clean counts

Brazil began phasing in electronic ballots in 1996 and fully implemented the system in 2000. The electoral court maintains that in the 13 general and municipal elections since they introduced it, there has been no proven instance of fraud. The system can tally nearly 150-million votes within hours, publishing results considered credible by local authorities and international observers.

But Bolsonaro, a former army captain with no party of his own, backed a bill to add paper printouts as a congressman, a measure the Supreme Court ultimately rejected. Now, allied legislators have advanced a constitutional amendment in the lower house to require paper ballots before 2022’s vote.

It would require a physical register of each electronic ballot. A sheet of paper would feed into a transparent safe so citizens could confirm their votes were cast. Electoral experts warn that such changes would cost hundreds of millions of dollars, and require public bidding for the design, production and supply of new machines.

“Implementing a model so different and so disruptive to the system we currently have in the conditions the president wants ahead of next year’s elections would be extremely difficult — I would say virtually impossible,” said Antonio Portinho da Cunha, former head of the electoral court of the state of Rio Grande do Sul.

Reintroducing paper would be a step backward, said Portinho da Cunha, who helped oversee the implementation of electronic ballots.

“It’s a complete inversion of logic,” he said. “You have a system, with many layers of safety, backstopped by one that is completely susceptible to manipulation.”

Hot seat

Leaders of major parties have signalled they will block the bill, but its success may be irrelevant if it provides Bolsonaro an argument for challenging the election outcome.

His approval ratings in July hit their lowest point — about 34% — while protests are growing. More than 500,000 Brazilians have died from Covid-19, and a congressional probe is examining each official error that led to such a toll.

Earlier in July, the inquiry found indications of kickbacks in vaccine purchases benefiting health ministry officials and a government-allied legislator. A Supreme Court justice authorised an investigation to determine whether Bolsonaro had knowledge of wrongdoing. He said he was not aware.

Many worry Bolsonaro’s campaign of doubt will leave a lasting an effect. Diego Werneck Arguelhes, a constitutional law professor at Insper University in Sao Paulo, said changing the system in itself isn’t wrong, but doing so soon before an election risks undermining faith in democracy.

“It’s very dangerous,” Arguelhes said. “What you have is Bolsonaro saying, ‘Unless we approve this change, the results cannot be trusted.’”

Regardless of how Bolsonaro fares, his unfounded claims could win him a lasting role, said Marco Aurelio Ruediger, director of the department of public policy analysis at the Getulio Vargas Foundation, a Rio de Janeiro think-tank.

“It creates the grounds to challenge the results,” said Ruediger. “Even if it’s unsuccessful, he’ll still hold on to 20%, 30% of the electorate, making him the second-most-powerful politician in Brazil.”

Bloomberg. More stories like this are available on bloomberg.com

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