Wednesday, September 26, 2012

USA vs. Brazil – Two models of election administration

Brazil will have municipal elections next month
(Ricardo Moraes/Reuters)
Brazil and the United States of America are the two most populated countries in the Western hemisphere. Between them, they add up to more than 510,400,000 million people, out of which approximately 380,000,000 are of voting age. Together with India, they formed the pioneering triad in the adoption of voting technology during the last score of the previous century. Another curious similarity is the fact that each of both nations is a federation of states with a republican form of government, which implies that the different states forming these republics have a considerable amount of sovereignty.  

In spite of coincidences, the way these republics conduct elections is radically different. The long debate between centralization vs. decentralization of the public administration is easily palpable when analyzing the way in which elections have been carried in Brazil and the US for the last twenty years. 

Since its founding fathers joined efforts to declare independence in 1776, the United States has made of the empowerment of each province, county, jurisdiction, or state to decide its future a point of honor. As a result of the decentralization of decision making, the nation has approximately 4,600 jurisdictions administering elections. Each State has its own rules as to how to best register voters, who is eligible to participate in elections, what the voting system is to be used, etc. Ten years ago, the country was using simultaneously all of the available technologies across the 51 States: punch cards, lever machines, optical scanners, and direct recording electronic voting machines. Vendors had scarce parameters to follow, and election officials lacked the preparation or necessary training to properly manage their relations with technology providers. As time passed, the US electoral administration system showed significant weaknesses. For example, during the 2000 General Election, the country had to wait over a month to have the Supreme Court declare the winner.  This incident triggered considerable reforms from Congress and the White House. To enhance accuracy, efficiency and transparency of elections, the Help America Vote Act was signed into law by President Bush in 2002. As a result, punch cards and lever machines were replaced with better technology; access to voting was improved for citizens with disabilities, and the Electoral Assistance Commission (EAC) was created. This step towards centralization (EAC) has rendered positive results, but since the EAC can only make recommendations to jurisdictions and states, and cannot force them to comply, the impact has not been sufficient. 

In the other side of the spectrum appears the giant from the South. Brazil chose to centralize decision making for election related matters as early as 1932. Since, a single authority has overseen the compliance with laws and regulations across the 16 states that comprise the federation. This high degree of discretion paved the way for seamless election automation in Brazil. The Tribunal Superior Eleitoral (TSE), Brazil's highest election administration agency, introduced computerized tallying of results in 1982, automation of voter registration in 1985, and adopted a unique Electronic Voting platform for the entire nation in 1996. Critics of the Brazilian election administration system point out the lack of sufficient citizen participation in decision making. Several studies have been signaling the need to upgrade voting machines to include a Voter-Verified Paper Trail. The printing of a receipt reflecting what a voting machine has recorded, would allow voters to verify that their choices are duly registered and counted accordingly.

The centralization vs. decentralization debate is far from over.  However, when it comes to election administration, the general tendency is to centralize decision making. Venezuela, which is another country with remarkable developments in terms of automation and conducting elections, can be an interesting case to study. The Consejo Nacional Electoral is a government agency with a rank theoretically as high as that of the Judiciary, Legislative, or Executive powers. With such preeminence of the electoral agency, and due to the highly auditable end-to-end automated election system in use, Venezuela has dramatically improved the transparency, accuracy and efficiency of its elections.