Can Brazilians Really Trust in Their Electronic Voting Machines?

September 15, 2022 Updated: September 19, 2022


Brazil has a federal electoral tribunal where its judges are endowed with a high degree of power. They create rules, decide on electoral disputes, and even supervise the finances of electoral campaigns. Under Article 121 of the Brazilian Constitution, decisions of this tribunal cannot be appealed unless they are contrary to the Constitution.

This powerful electoral tribunal is composed of seven members. Three are elected by a secret vote among judges of the Supreme Court, and two others are elected by secret vote among Superior Court of Justice judges. The remaining two are appointed by the president of the Republic among six lawyers nominated by Supreme Court judges.

Electoral court judges in Brazil have been subject to considerable criticism because of their controversial actions over the last three years. President Jair Bolsonaro complains that these unelected judges always speak against his government.

On Feb. 19, the then presiding judge of the federal electoral tribunal, Luis Roberto Barroso, spoke at the Texas University Law School on the topic of “Ditching a President.” Thirty days earlier, he had already delivered a talk at the University of Chicago, where the actions of his electoral court were described as a “warfare operation.”

This sort of “war operation,” according to Barroso, was made possible through immediate responses to questions on the validity of the electronic voting system, cooperation with major social media platforms, establishing alliances with major fact-checkers, and social education focused on identifying fake news.

Epoch Times Photo
An illustration picture shows a smartphone screen displaying the phrase “Fake News” in front of a desktop screen showing several news and research reports about fake news and disinformation related to the upcoming Brazilian presidential election, in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, on Aug. 29, 2022. (Mauro Pimentel/AFP via Getty Images)

Paper Ballots More Reliable Than Electronic Voting Machines

On June 25, Barroso addressed the “Brazil Forum UK” at the University of Oxford. There, he expressed displeasure about the fact that far too many Brazilians appear to have WhatsApp as a primary source of information. According to him, the use of social media is not desirable because it causes the spread of information that is not “filtered” by “professional journalists.”

When he started to advocate for the reliability of electronic voting machines, he was promptly interrupted by two Brazilian students from Oxford who consider these machines unrealiable. Like millions of other Brazilians, they believe that using printable and auditable paper ballots is a far better guarantee of electoral transparency.

Democratic elections require independent verification that a) all balloting choices have been recorded as intended and b) vote totals have been reliably and indisputably created from the same material examined by the voters.

With paper-based voting, at least voters can actually see people counting the ballots. But if the process becomes entirely electronic, then accurate audits are practically impossible, thus making it harder to verify the reliability of results.

For example, votes that are cast using these voting machines must be stored in a safe storage or placed in computer storage.

However, according to Doug Jonges, professor of computer science at the University of Iowa: “All direct recording electronic machines have been required to contain redundant storage, but this redundant storage is not an independent record of the votes because it is created by the same software that created the original record. As a result, the multiple files are of limited use to check the correctness of the software.”

About seven years ago, two German citizens actually challenged the constitutionality of electronic voting before that nation’s Constitutional Court. The decision by the German Constitutional Court stressed the need for absolute transparency in the electoral process, which is not possible if the process is restricted to specialist technical knowledge.

Therefore, the court concluded that the complementary examination by the electoral bodies and the general public could only be made possible through physical vote records in addition to electronic storage.

Can Brazil Return to Voting on Paper?

Arguably, electronic voting systems are not as secure as paper-based systems because there is always the potential for hackers to tamper with the results. Indeed, electronic voting machines appear to contain numerous weaknesses in controls designed to protect the system.

Touch-screen voting machines are particularly susceptible whenever they rely on outdated technology.

According to Ellen Theisen, CEO of the Vote-PAD Company, because the sensors in touchscreen voting machines can be easily knocked out of alignment by shock and vibration, such machines may ultimately misinterpret a voter’s intent (pdf).

This is why most developed countries still use analogical voting and counting (paper ballots and physical ballot boxes made of canvas, plastic, and other materials).

Epoch Times Photo
Electoral Court officials prepare electronic voting machines for Brazil’s general election, in Brasilia, Brazil, on Sept. 19, 2018. (Evaristo Sa/AFP via Getty Images)

For Aviel Rubin, director of the Information Security Institute at Johns Hopkins University, the use of electronic voting machines is flawed and easy to manipulate.

According to Rebecca Mercuri, president of Notable Software (pdf),

“A Voter Verified Paper Ballot (VVPB) provides an auditable way to assure voters that their ballots will be available to be counted … Without VVPB, there is no way to independently audit the election results. Equipment failures, configurations, and programming errors have resulted in costly election recalls and disputes that could have been prevented with VVPB.”

The next presidential election in Brazil is scheduled to be held on Oct. 2, 2022. With the current electronic system, however, there is no absolute guarantee that citizens’ votes are exactly what they have cast in the ballot box, and simply because there is no actual physical register for each vote cast electronically.

In other words, Brazilian citizens are simply unable to confirm whether their votes are cast properly. Of course, if the electoral process were done on paper ballots, then counting of votes would be made entirely public via the direct participation of electoral inspectors and voluntary delegates, so that any suspicion of possible electoral fraud would be dramatically reduced.

With a presidential election looming, is there any hope for electoral transparency in Brazil?

Read Part 2 here.

Views expressed in this article are the opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Epoch Times.

Augusto Zimmermann is professor and head of law at Sheridan Institute of Higher Education in Perth. He is also president of the Western Australian (WA) Legal Theory Association, editor-in-chief of The Western Australian Jurist, and served as a member of WA's law reform commission from 2012 to 2017. Zimmermann has authored numerous books, including "Direito Constitucional Brasileiro," "Western Legal Theory," and "Christian Foundations of the Common Law."
Thomas Korontai is a Brazilian businessman, journalist, and the national coordinator of Convergências, a coalition of citizens aspiring for the adoption of public vote counting in the Brazilian electoral system. He is also the founder and president of the Instituto Federalista do Brasil.