November 4, 2020

People living in at least 25 countries might be reading the news today that the U.S. still hasn’t elected a president and asking themselves, “Why isn’t the United States using electronic ballots like us?”

In those 25 countries, election results come in a few hours because votes are collected electronically rather than on paper. And keep in mind that electronic voting isn’t online voting — it’s simply a faster way of tabulating votes.

According to the International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance, countries as big as Brazil and India, with huge populations and complex political systems, shifted to electronic ballot technology many years ago. So why hasn’t the U.S.?

Americans have been led to distrust anything electronic in voting. But spending some time learning about international experience might be helpful to change this perception. In India and in Brazil, results have been very positive so far.

“Brazil has about 150 million voters,” said Giuseppe Janino, the secretary of technology and information in the Brazilian Superior Electoral Court. “In the 2018 presidential election, we announced the winner only two hours and 16 minutes after the polls were closed. By that time, we had already counted 96.7% of all votes, cast all over the country.”

Brazilians adopted electronic ballots for the first time in 1996. That year, one-third of all voters used a machine to cast their ballots. Since 2000, 100% of Brazilian voters have used the electronic system.

The mechanism is quite simple. Voters type the candidate’s number into the machine — just like they would do in a calculator — and hit a green button to get the vote counted. At the end of Election Day, each machine produces a report, printing out how many votes each candidate had. The Electoral Courts then only have to add the results of each machine.

No fraud has been confirmed so far.

“We run public tests every electoral year,” said Janino. “And the system has never been fully hacked. Our voting machines have one physical barrier that must be overcome by those who try to hack it, but also another 30 digital barriers.”

But if hackers can breach the FBI, the Pentagon and NASA, why should voters believe the Brazilian voting machine is reliable?

“Because our machine isn’t connected to the internet. It doesn’t have Wi-Fi, Bluetooth or any other technology like that. To hack it, a person would need to actually have all the machines in hand,” Janino said.

What is more interesting is that recounting votes is possible. Every single machine registers every single vote in a scrambled way. When the polls close, it generates a signed report — kind of like a spreadsheet — where all parties can fact-check the number of votes and the number of people who participated in the election.

Janino said each country’s electronic voting systems are calibrated for their specific nation’s needs by trusted election officials. This reduces voter fears of fraud or malfeasance.

The Brazilian machines are owned and managed by the Superior Electoral Court. It keeps the project and hires different companies to manufacture the machines when needed.

“The Superior Electoral Court sends and keeps a team in the company that is manufacturing our machines because when they are ready, the manufacturer can’t even test it. Only our engineers can,” said Janino.

For the 2022 presidential election, Brazil has already signed a contract with Positivo to produce 180,000 machines. Each one of them cost R$4,400 ($780).

In India, voting machines have been part of the electoral process since 2001. They were used in all general and state assembly elections. The main difference between the Brazilian and the Indian machines is that the latter prints the vote.

According to the Brookings Institution India Center, the introduction of electronic voting machines reduced electoral fraud, made the electoral process more competitive in regions where the winning margins were short and led to a decline in crimes related to the election process.

The United States might give it a try. According to VerifiedVoting.org, 19 states have some sort of electronic voting system in place, but 22 exclusively accept hand-marked paper ballots. It’s probably time to consider how effective electronic balloting is in other countries, and consider adopting it here.

Support high-integrity, independent journalism that serves democracy. Make a gift to Poynter today. The Poynter Institute is a nonpartisan, nonprofit organization, and your gift helps us make good journalism better.
Donate
Cristina Tardáguila is the International Fact-Checking Network’s Associate Director. She was born in May 1980, in Brazil, and has lived in Rio de Janeiro for…
More by Cristina Tardáguila

More News

Back to News