While Donald Trump and his followers continue to push the delusional story or Big Lie that he was robbed of victory in last year’s presidential election, the disease is clearly spreading. Myanmar’s generals seized power in February under a bogus claim of election fraud, and (as we noted the other day) Zambia’s Edgar Lungu made similar allegations about his defeat, although he has now committed to a peaceful transfer of power.
But the most interesting case is Brazil, whose far-right president, Jair Bolsonaro, has echoed Trump in many ways during his two and a half years in power. Now he is engaged in a campaign to discredit his country’s voting system, apparently laying the groundwork for disputing the result if he is defeated in the election scheduled for October of next year.
But there’s a twist. Trump’s efforts to delegitimise last year’s election in advance centred on postal votes, which played a much greater role than usual due to the health crisis. Only after the election did his supporters make increasingly outlandish claims about voting machines, including claims that they were secretly programmed to switch his votes to those for his opponent, Joe Biden. (For which claims some Trumpists are now being sued for enormous sums for defamation.)
Bolsonaro, however, has targeted the machines from the start. Back in 2015, when he was a relatively obscure member of congress, he proposed a constitutional amendment to require voting machines to print paper ballots that could be counted by hand. It was approved by congress but struck down by the supreme court; Brazil continues to use the electronic machines as it has since 1996.
This is a good illustration of the importance of context in debates about voting systems. Like other public policy issues, electoral administration is not a search for perfection; it’s a choice between available alternatives, whose merits are sensitive to the particular circumstances of time and place.
So, for example, I’ve drawn attention in the past to the risks involved in postal voting, and argued that we should be wary about expanding it more than is immediately necessary. But in the United States, where the procedures for in-person voting are so ramshackle, that argument has less force – postal voting may well amount to an improvement in both turnout and security.
Similarly with voting machines. In the abstract, Bolsonaro is absolutely right: the machines should produce a verifiable paper trail, and in its absence there is a heightened risk of fraud or error. But in a context where the existing machines have been used for many years without trouble, and where the alternative is to make the change shortly before an election at the whim of a president with a history of unfounded claims and a liking for coups, the balance of advantages is not so clear.
The opinion polls show Bolsonaro trailing well behind his main likely opponent, former centre-left president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva. If that holds up, nothing that the voting machines can do is likely to save him. But undermining public confidence in the system may be a stepping stone to more drastic measures – of the sort that Trump was unable to get away with, but that Brazil’s institutions may not be as well-equipped to resist.
Even so, I worry that Bolsonaro’s opponents may be being too hasty in their rejection of voting machine reform. The superiority of paper receipts is sufficiently plain that even an obviously bad-faith claim for them deserves to be taken seriously. But as in the US, once the debate over voting systems has become politically polarised it is very hard for it to recover.