Doubts linger for Brazil's electronic voting

Government says system is nearly foolproof

critics seek paper-trail safeguard

October 03, 2004|By Henry Chu | Henry Chu,LOS ANGELES TIMES

SANTA ROSA DU 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 today's election.

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

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

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

The government hails the system as a triumph. 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. "But these positions require more gullibility than I can stand."

Similar concerns about the reliability of computerized voting are being raised in the United States, where the Florida debacle in the 2000 presidential contest gave impetus to hauling the American electoral process into the digital age.

Next month, 29 percent 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 to the United States and Brazil.

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

They point to 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, have also 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 [in that time] our specialists haven't come up with the best solution?"

The government is so confident of its 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 be the result of a regulatory process that concentrates all power on electoral matters in the hands of the federal elections tribunal. The tribunal was one of the chief backers of automated voting. It implemented the program and is responsible for policing the system it set up. That, critics say, gives the tribunal a vested interest in claiming success and hushing up problems.

And, indeed, 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 computer 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 earlier 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 elections official helped two local politicians in 2000 and 2002 by swapping computer disks or manipulating software to favor them in the vote count.

The ensuing scandal has pointed up what critics say is the lack of a credible way to challenge the final tally in an election. In Brazil, the computer has the first and last word on who wins. But what if it makes a mistake or somebody rigs its software?

Elections officials insist that such fraud is impossible because the various political parties witness the machines being programmed and then seal them. Tampering would require a widespread conspiracy involving election workers, candidates and technicians.

Concerned academics, specialists and technicians have lobbied for printers to be hooked up to voting machines, to create a paper record that would back up the electronic tally and allow for a manual recount. But the government has dismissed the idea as unwieldy and unnecessary.

The Los Angeles Times is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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