Wednesday, January 30, 2013

How electronic voting led to better infant health in Brazil

Photo: Freedigitalphotos

Today we’ll share some thoughts about Thomas Fujiwara’s paper “Voting Technology, Political Responsiveness, and Infant Health: Evidence from Brazil.

Before 1996, when Brazil first implemented e-voting, about a fifth (23%, according to the 1991 census) of the adult population was illiterate. 

Yet the election system involved written paper ballots. Which meant this large number of people (most of whom couldn’t afford even primary education) couldn’t fill them in and cast their vote correctly.

This lead to a huge number of “residual” votes that couldn’t be assigned to any particular candidate – meaning that effectively many poor people were unable to select politicians who might help them. In fact electronic voting was introduced to save time and money counting votes but had the unintended consequence of making voting easier for these ‘forgotten’ citizens. 

According to Thomas Fujiwara in his paper, the introduction of candidate pictures and color –coded commands to the voting process – thanks to voting machines – was a turning point. Because it suddenly meant Brazil’s illiterate and poor had a voice. 

It also helped, as noted by the BBC, that a numeric interface (similar to the one used in telephones, something even an illiterate person knows how to handle) was used. 

Voters only needed to press the number for the candidate they wanted to support, and if they weren’t able to recognize written numbers, they could take notes with them to the voting station to select the right button. 

Then a picture of the candidate they selected was shown and through color-coded buttons they could approve or cancel their vote. 

So now, even those who can’t read are able to vote for their candidates of choice. And, since voting is compulsory in Brazil, there are even options to cast a blank or a void vote. 

Thanks to technology, now everybody is able to cast their vote, to make their voice heard, and to be sure that their vote goes to the choice they selected. 

This increased participation, and as a new pool of votes from the country’s illiterate poor could now be counted (instead of just being voided, like in the past).

In response, Brazilian parties and politicians decided to start investing more on issues that directly improved the lives of these less fortunate people. 

In particular, Fujiwara’s paper found out that after the implementation of e-voting, there was a rise all across Brazil in the investment in public health care. 

The author’s research found that there have been a growing number of prenatal visits and a decline in low-weight births in uneducated (and thus, the poorest) mothers, while this numbers didn’t change for middle or high-income women (who are more prone to attend private health institutions).

Since e-voting was implemented progressively throughout Brazilian states, Fujiwara could compare numbers from different regions at different times and see that indeed, e-voting caused these improvements to the health care of the poorest.

This means that, thanks to e-voting, Brazilian politicians are tending to the poorest people’s needs, as this new voting system brought light to an otherwise ignored (and big) part of the population that now has an effective way to claim their rights.