Learn about the history of Brazilian electronic voting machines, which goes back 18 years

History of Brazilian electronic voting machines.

In the General Elections of 2014, it will be 18 years since electronic voting machines were first taken into use. On October 5, more than 141 million Brazilians will be eligible to participate in the largest computerized elections at the country and the world levels. On occasion, approximately 530 thousand electronic voting machines will be made available for voters to cast their ballots. Electronic voting machines were developed by the Superior Electoral Court (TSE) with the aim of ensuring greater security and transparency to the electoral process – and thus eliminating human intervention from vote counting procedures and the disclosure of results. For almost two decades now, electronic voting machines have been regarded by many as a symbol of democracy and credibility.  

Although the use of information technology in the electoral system has increased over time, issues like security and ballot secrecy have always been taken into account, in line with worldwide technological developments. However, the use of a mechanized device specially designed for citizens to cast their votes has long been wanted by Brazilians. The country´s first Electoral Code, dated of 1932, established in Article 57 that “the use of voting machines shall be regulated by the Superior (Electoral) Court in due course”, provided ballot secrecy is ensured.

In the 1990s, electronic voting machines were effectively put to use, but Electoral Courts had been investing in the use of information technology long before that.

How it all began

The establishment of a single and automated register of voters was the kickoff to the development of a computerized voting system. That began in 1985 and was completed in 1986, when Justice Néri da Silveira chaired the TSE. By then, the Brazilian electorate comprised 70 million eligible voters. Furthermore, the previous absence of a national register had opened a loophole for voter registration fraud.

In 1994, chaired by Justice Sepúlveda Pertence, the TSE carried out for the first time the electronic processing of the results of general elections held that year, working with IT resources already used by Electoral Courts. “When I took office as President of the TSE in 1993, we took a significant step, which enabled the Court´s next President, Justice Carlos Velloso, to encourage the development of electronic voting machines. During the two-year term in which I chaired the TSE, we managed to establish the national network of Electoral Courts, setting up the necessary infrastructure for electronic voting”, noted Justice Pertence in the program “Memories of Democracy”, which was produced by the Court.

He recalled that such national network of Electoral Courts provided for the transmission of municipal vote-counting results to selected regional centers. “The network worked so smoothly that even before the advent of electronic voting machines, during the presidential election of 1994, we were able to announce the winning candidate, which had won by absolute majority of the votes, at around 10p.m. or 11 p.m.”, he added.

Revolution

However, the “great revolution of electronic voting”, in the words of Justice Sepúlveda Pertence, was put to practice in 1995. Justice Carlos Velloso, who chaired the TSE back then, explained in the program “Memories of Democracy” that the purpose of such developments has always been to eliminate electoral fraud. “Pertence and I were committed to establishing vote-counting procedures that did not require human participation”, he said. And the solution, he continued, was to adopt electronic voting. “An electronic voting machine, a small computer that could electronically process the ballots cast, with increased swiftness and security, providing for a quick count of votes”.

According to Velloso, it was necessary to engage in “a crusade across the country” to prove that it was feasible to make use of a computerized system for voters to cast their vote. “There was an overall sense of disbelief, even amongst peers”, he noted. The project began to be developed by a “group of eminent persons”, composed by Justices, jurists and employees of Electoral Courts, who were asked to establish the procedures for the automatic collection of votes.

“The first committee was responsible for the successful development of Brazilian electronic voting machines, especially because such committee was formed by professionals who had a deep understanding of the activities carried out by Brazilian Electoral Courts”, added Paulo Camarão, who served at that time as the secretary of Information Technology of the TSE, having been invited from the Federal Data Processing Service (Serpro) by Justice Carlos Velloso to coordinate such innovative efforts.

Giuseppe Janino, current secretary of Information Technology of the TSE, notes that, before 1996, regional courts ran tests in personal computers (PCs) to computerize the collection of votes. “But that has evolved. It became clear that PCs were not secure enough to be used (in electronic voting) on a nationwide scale”.

Janino explains that the purpose of the initiative then shifted to the development of a computer-based equipment, one that would feature a screen, a keyboard and a CPU in one single piece, with different security requirements in place. “At that time, there was no such device available”, he recalls.

Other critical requirements for the development of an electronic voting machine included user-friendly interface and mechanisms that prevented the access to its internal memory, an attribute that computers did not have back then. “We wanted an objective display, not a keyboard that offered too many different options for machine users. We wanted an easy-to-use device that enabled illiterate people to vote. The keyboard designed as a telephone keypad was an intentional choice, as we wanted to enable both illiterate and visually-impaired people to interact easily with that device”, says Janino.

Based on the conditions set forth by the “group of eminent persons”, a “technical group” was formed with the aim of designing a basic project for electronic voting machines. Technical group members included three engineers from the National Institute for Space Research (Inpe), one engineer from the Brazilian Army, one from the Air Force (Department of Aerospace Science and Technology – DCTA), one from the Army and one from Brazil´s Telecommunications Research and Development Center (CPqD).

“The technical committee started from scratch, but their dedication and hard work led to the design of a prototype for electronic voting machines. As the committee carried out studies on the development of electronic voting machines, I met with representatives from foreign companies that were interested in selling voting machines to Brazil. I would say: no, we will develop and manufacture our own voting machine instead. One that is simple and inexpensive. And we did it”, says Justice Velloso.

Giuseppe Janino also points to the fact that electronic voting machines were develop to meet the needs of the Brazilian voting system. “It was no imported quick fix, but a solution developed with the aim of properly addressing our needs. We did not turn to the market to find an alternative for election automation. Instead, we got to design and work on a project on the internal level. And we came with a unique solution that perfectly meets our needs and is compatible with our reality”, he notes.

Antonio Esio Salgado, an Inpe engineer who participated in the technical group that was responsible for designing a Brazilian electronic voting machine, recalls that the “group of eminent persons” had recommended that the electronic collection of votes processed only the serial number of each candidate and party, and that keyboard and voting machine screen functioned in a way that allowed voters to cast their votes and to visually check if the selected candidate corresponded to the serial number typed on the keyboard.

According to Paulo Camarão, one of the hardest changes was the adoption of system that generated serial numbers for candidates. “That was not easy at all, as many candidates are known by their names, but they have to be recognized by a serial number for voting purposes. [Nevertheless,] The Legislative accepted such change and agreed to have such radical change implemented within the voting process”, he says.

First computerized election

In 1996, more than 32 million Brazilians, one third of the electorate at the time, cast their votes in more than 70 thousand electronic voting machines that had been especially manufactured for those elections, and had been distributed to fifty-seven different cities that had more than 200 thousand voters each, including 26 capitals (as the Federal District does not organize elections for mayor, it did not get to participate). “We used Brazilian Air Force aircrafts so as to properly and timely deliver the voting machines”, Justice Velloso recalls.

On September 29, 1996, that is one week before the first round of elections was held, Justice Marco Aurélio, who was chairing the TSE at the time, affirmed in an article published in the press that: “Electoral Courts have strong reasons to believe that voters will not be confronted with difficulties when using the new electronic system to cast their votes. We developed user-friendly voting machines that undergone extensive testing”.  

He also noted that it was necessary to expand the use of the electronic voting system to the totality of Brazilian voters in order to effectively consolidate the success of such innovative change. “We took a first step. Electoral Courts get to fulfill their institutional role certain that they can rely on the support of political forces of nationwide influence to pursue a bigger goal: the continuous improvement of democracy”, concluded Justice Marco Aurélio.

Five years later, electronic voting machines were distributed across the country, being used in Brazil´s first entirely-computerized election. Electoral Courts have been using an increased number of electronic voting machines ever since in order to properly meet the needs of the country´s electorate.

Giuseppe Janino regards the implementation of electronic voting in Brazil “as a successful project”, especially because of the commitment of Electoral Courts with its continuous improvement. “As long we are able to rely on such commitment, such quest for continuous enhancements, harnessing the possibilities offered by technology to implement such improvements and ensure greater transparency and security, Brazilian citizens will continue to have access to a sophisticated kind of service that became a benchmark to the world”. He concluded that “it is possible to keep on moving forward”, but that must be done cautiously. “Improvements must be implemented after security testing is performed and their compatibility with Brazilian culture is checked”.