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Explainer: Bolsonaro knocks Brazil’s voting system

President Jair Bolsonaro has cast doubt on Brazil’s electronic voting system, but the top electoral authority says the system has been tested rigorously.

September 7, 2022
By Diane Jeantet and Carla Bridi
7 September 2022

With Brazil’s presidential election just a month off, President Jair Bolsonaro is feeding concern about the nation’s electronic voting system.

He has long insisted that the machines, used for a quarter-century, are prone to fraud, though he acknowledged last year that hasn’t been proved.

Brazil’s top electoral authority says the system has been tested rigorously and some critics of Bolsonaro say he may be laying the groundwork for an attempt to cling to power if the vote doesn’t go his way – much like former US President Donald Trump, whom Bolsonaro admires.

Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro is a big fan of former US President Donald Trump. (Mark Wilson/Getty Images)

Here’s a look at Brazil’s electronic vote system.

WHY DOES BRAZIL USE AN ELECTRONIC SYSTEM?

Brazilian authorities adopted electronic voting machines to tackle longstanding fraud. In earlier elections, ballot boxes arrived at voting stations already stuffed with votes. Others were stolen and individual votes were routinely falsified, according to Brazil’s electoral authority.

Electronic machines were first used in 1996 and the first nationwide, electronic-only vote took place four years later. Today, results from more than 150 million eligible voters are presented mere hours after polls close. And no significant fraud has ever been detected.

A worker at Brazil’s Elections Disclosure Center demonstrates the country’s electronic voting machine system. (Eraldo Peres/AP Photo)

HOW COMMON IS ELECTRONIC VOTING ELSEWHERE?

Various electronic voting systems also are prevalent in the US. But in nearly all cases, votes cast electronically are backed up with a paper record, unlike in Brazil.

Advocates say electronic systems are more efficient than having voters fill out physical ballots and having election workers count them by hand.

Yet adoption has been slowed or halted in countries such as Germany, France and the Netherlands due to nagging suspicions that hacking might be possible or by a lack of transparency in how they function.

Brazil will hold its first round of general elections on October 2 and second round on October 30. (Eraldo Peres/AP Photo)

HOW IS BRAZIL’S VOTING SYSTEM AUDITED?

The electoral authority says voting machines are checked for reliability before, during and after balloting. Votes recorded by each machine can be cross-checked with the overall tallies after the vote.

Election officials acknowledge that hacking is always a risk, but say no one has ever managed to alter the machines’ source code or election results.

They say risks are further minimized because the machines aren’t connected to the internet and information is sent only through internal systems, segments of which shut down if alterations are detected.

For this year’s elections, over a dozen institutions – including police, the military, prosecutors and universities – accepted the electoral court’s invitation to audit the machines. During a three-day hackathon in May, some 20 hired experts sought to penetrate the system. None succeeded.

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