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All-Digital Voting Keeps Polls Pulsing in Brazil

Critics say the machines can be tampered with, but officials cite no significant cases of fraud since paper ballots were abandoned in 2000.

October 03, 2004|Henry Chu | Times Staff Writer

SANTA ROSA DO PURUS, Brazil — The closest thing to a computer in Manoel Perreira Kaxinawa's tiny village is a calculator, one of two shared by the hamlet's 160 inhabitants. So after a three-day journey upriver to this remote Amazon town, through thick, impenetrable jungle, Perreira was more than ready to glimpse an electronic voting machine.

An election official walked him through a demonstration. Perreira, about to vote for the first time in his life, punched in the numbers of his preferred candidates like a natural, a quick and painless practice run for election day today.

"I think it's very cool," said Perreira, 25, a member of the Kaxinawa tribe that lives deep in the rainforest. "It was easy."

Throughout this vast country, officials have deployed more than 400,000 such machines that voters will use to choose mayors for Brazil's 5,500 cities.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Wednesday October 06, 2004 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 50 words Type of Material: Correction
Brazil vote -- A photo caption in Sunday's Section A with an article about voting in Brazil said that electoral worker Erimar Silva da Costa was checking the voter register in Santa Rosa do Purus. The photo showed Manoel Perreira Kaxinawa conducting a practice run on an electronic voting machine.

With a population of 180 million living in an area larger than the continental U.S., Brazil is the world's biggest country to have fully automated voting. From small jungle towns to huge industrial centers like Sao Paulo, citizens have done without paper ballots since 2000.

The government hails the system as a triumph that puts Brazil on the cutting edge. Voting -- mandatory by law -- has become easier for millions, including the nation's many illiterates, who can see a photo of their chosen candidate on the computer screen. Results are known a few hours after polls close.

But the successes of the system have masked what critics say are serious flaws that the government has failed to address adequately.

With no paper trail and imperfect supervision, critics contend, the voting machines are susceptible to tampering by hackers and crooked officials -- both of whom are in ample supply. The extremely technical nature of the system can make fraud more difficult to detect.

"Some may pretend, and others believe, that Brazil's long-standing culture of electoral manipulation and collusion went away simply because of [electronic voting] machines," said Pedro Antonio Dourado de Rezende, a computer science professor in Brasilia, the capital. "But these positions require more gullibility than I can stand."

Similar concerns about the reliability of computerized voting are being raised in the U.S., where the Florida debacle in the 2000 presidential contest gave impetus for hauling the nation's electoral process into the digital age.

Next month, 29% of registered U.S. voters are expected to use touch-screen voting machines, more than double the percentage four years ago. Some officials are warning of problems with devices built by companies such as Diebold Election Systems, which is a major supplier of voting machines in the U.S. and Brazil.

Brazilian officials said that no significant cases of election fraud had emerged since electronic voting went national four years ago.

They cite safeguards against tampering, such as the presence of representatives from different political parties when the machines are installed and the names and photos of candidates are loaded.

Portions of the computers' "source code," or programming instructions, also have been opened to inspection.

"Our voting system has been in use since 1996," said Paulo Cesar Bering Camarao, the head of the computing department of Brazil's federal elections tribunal. "Do you think by any chance that ... our specialists haven't come up with the best solution?"

The government is so confident of its pioneering methods that it speaks of exporting its system to other Latin American countries. After the 2000 U.S. presidential election, editorials here bragged about having the solution to America's vote-tallying woes.

But critics say that the lack of major fraud cases may simply be the result of a regulatory process that concentrates all power on electoral matters in the hands of the federal elections tribunal. The body, an offshoot of the judiciary, was one of the chief backers of automated voting; it implemented the program and is responsible for policing the system it set up. That, detractors say, gives the tribunal a vested interest in claiming success and hushing up problems.

And a few problems have arisen -- some of them minor glitches, others more serious allegations of vote-rigging.

During the first round of Brazil's presidential election two years ago, the mainframe tabulating the votes briefly went haywire, changing Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva's tally from more than 1 million to an impossible minus 41,000.

After "some screams" and a scramble to find the bug, the correct count flashed on the screen, Rezende wrote in a paper presented this year at Rutgers University. An official blamed a "formatting error" for the blip, which went largely unreported by the Brazilian media.

Last month, an alleged vote-fixing scheme surfaced in Rio de Janeiro. Police there are investigating whether an electoral official helped two local politicians in 2000 and 2002 by swapping computer disks or manipulating software to favor them in the vote count.

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