http://www.cic.unb.br/~rezende/sd.php > English: Brazil's e-Vote

Brazil's e-Vote: an Overview

Translated by Colin Brayton, revised by author

Prof. Pedro Antonio Dourado de Rezende
Department of Computer Science
University of Brasília
November, 2007



In a consumer society, even democracy is at the mercy of the logic of consumption. But democracy is not something to be bought. It is something that is cultivated. It is a participatory process that culminates in elections. Elections are a struggle to occupy space, and not just space in public opinion, through campaigning. It proceeds, or ought to proceed, by monitoring the vote and verifying the vote count in order to award elected office to those with a legitimate right to it.

But politics is a reflection of human nature. Persons assigned by a candidate or party to monitor elections are also going to be exposed to the temptation (or receive orders) to commit fraud, others permitting. For those of us who value democracy, the best result would be a race to the top in which political parties compete to field an equal degree of expertise in the area of elections monitoring, so that fraud will be neutralized as to final results and the results will be fair.

In Brazil today, however, the elections process has become more of a media spectacle than anything else. The voter is invited to watch a sort of poll-driven Formula One race, with the checkered flag falling on election day. During the final lap, the voter goes up to a black box and pushes some buttons, then sits down in front of the TV to see the results. With the exception of the proportional races, the whole process has come to be something like playing a video game. The importance of election monitoring to the process has disappeared from public awareness.

Elections as spectacle

Those who try to explain why we should accept this method of electing government officials are generally ignorant of the details of the computerization that make it possible. Those who promote and defend this have faith in the technology used, as if it were merely the product of the natural evolution of the process. Or worse, they have faith in this as if it were a gift from the gods, sent down to solve human problems such as, for example, the temptation to commit election fraud. They believe, naively, in a supposed neutrality of technology and, in a certain sense, they transfer that faith to those who control such technology. In doing so, they embrace the central dogma of the sect of the holy byte. According to a recent poll by the Nexus Institute and the Padre Anchieta Foundation, 88.7% percent of Brazilians have confidence in the election authorities and 99% have confidence in the electronic voting machine used by them. They have embraced.

In order to expedite the counting of votes, or to prevent forms of fraud that are possible with paper ballots, the fully computerized election process concentrates control in the hands of fewer and fewer staff, who therefore concentrate more and more power over it. As a consequence, the profile of risks to the elections process has undergone important changes. We have traded in one set of vulnerabilities, one set of techniques for committing election fraud, for a new set of risks, in which fraud can be committed remotely, by few and easily concealed. For that reason, it is increasingly important that effective elections monitoring be performed, so that we can understand why it is that we should be confident of the results.

In this regard, of greater concern is the fact that those who believe blindly in technology tend to perceive only the irrelevant details of the trade-off involved. For example, through the view that, in order to defraud computerized elections, one has to be thoroughly familiar with the system. Fewer persons will therefore be able to defraud elections, compared with the paper balloting system. A trait, however, that also applies when we substitute the word "defraud" for the word "monitor". This, in turn, presents us with the following important, but neglected fact: The ordinary voter has renounced his or her right to monitor elections. And in exchange for what? This is an important question, because the ordinary voter, when it comes to hidden technologies, is easily captured by deceiving or false impressions. The best answer that I can come up with I will take the rest of this essay to explain: We have traded that right for a mere fetish of modernization.

How so?

If speed were our goal, we might learn something from the Germans and French, who tally the result from paper-based voting more rapidly than the fully electronic system in use in Brazil. Sure, Brazil has the Amazon Basin, but the Germans and French have another concept of democracy than ours, it seems. If security were our goal, we would be more concerned than we currently are to understand how and why programmable machines merit our confidence when we go to elect our leaders. Perhaps it is convenience that explains our acceptance of computerizing elections in this way. For someone who has never suffered the lack of democracy, voting is merely another hassle. If one does not trust politicians anyway, why bother to monitor elections? The technological fetish, comfortable and convenient, produces credulity and laziness: If only a few persons control the technology, let the job of monitoring elections be handed off to some specialized few as well.

Persons who think like this do not understand, or want not to understand, that the only way to find reasons for confidence in politicians is to monitor the process of electing them ourselves. Failing to do so, will only encourage the corrupt to coopt these few. But perhaps this does not matter. For those of us who would not trust someone like oneself, perhaps continuing to mistrust politicians seems logical. So lets preserve the reasons for thinking this way, right? Honesty and rationality, it seems, are out of fashion, while hypocrisy and cynicism are perennially in.

Politics abhors a vacuum. Thus, in Brazilian politics, powers get concentrated in few hands. The authorities who execute elections are the same who judge the fairness and validity of those elections. This kind of concentration of power, the struggle against which gave rise to the original democratic revolutions, as it did to our own Revolution of 1930, tends to grow. With these powers, authorities seek to ally themselves with those who can give them more power, in order to control the risk inherent in the powers they already have. In this case, they seek to computerize this process and legitimate their modernizing rationale. With massive propaganda, which is working. If Nelson Rodrigues was right about the nature of unanimity, what we are witnessing is the massive exploitation of public ignorance or stupidity.

Near unanimity

In any computer system, those who control access also control the means of auditing the system. Controlling the means of auditing elections, in turn, is a double-edged sword. It can be used to share those means fairly among parties interested in effective monitoring, or it can be used to sabotage the effectiveness of election monitoring with an eye to camouflaging the manipulation of results. With computers, this can be easily achieved by magic shows with lots of smoke and mirrors, dressed up as technical monitoring. Using, for example, substandard parallel voting, self-verifying digital signatures, and a truncated public compilation ceremony, with no right to demand a material record of each vote, penetration testing or external audits, as done in Brazil.

Controlling the means to monitor fully computerized elections serves, at the same time, to eliminate older forms of election fraud and to generate new forms -- deniable, untraceable forms of election fraud that lie within easy reach of those who operate the system. It serves to concentrate defrauding power, and therefore, to fortify the same type of political machines that operated under Brazil's First Republic (spanning from 1889 to 1930). I say nothing here -- and do not mean to imply anything -- on the motivations behind the choices made about the system's architecture. I am merely evaluating the results of these choices. In other words -- the thought may have a certain Hegelian tone to it -- the control of the means to monitor fully computerized elections serves to shroud democracy in yet another dialectical veil, beneath which the Zeitgeist moves in mysterious ways. If you pay attention, you can observe its course. For example, if you pay attention to the lobbying activities directed at legislators interested in elections law.

If fewer than 30% of Brazilians trust politicians, and 99% trust the programmable machines through which they elect them, well, then, two-thirds of them are simply not paying attention. They are failing to ask the important question here: Who programs the machines? The answer is: programmers hired by bureaucrats nominated by politicians. Not angels fallen from heaven. Hired, in the midst of the computerized elections we have already held, by the same company that the ECT (the mail service) hired irregularly, as described in Report 10/2005 of the Federal Auditor and investigated by Congress in the affair that led to the exposure of the scheme known as "Valerioduto". A company that listed mega-lobbyist Jack Abramoff on its payroll, the man recently found guilty in the U.S. of active corruption, who faces charges in five other cases. Hired by either that company, or one of the three companies that maintained a stealth house where lobbyists met secretly with the economy minister, Mr. Palloci, according to his assistant, Rogerio Buratti, in interviews to the two largest newspapers in Brazil.

Comings and goings in election legislation

It is worth remembering how the so-called "Senate panel scandal" knocked down, in 2001, a magical electronic black box used to count legislative votes, in an affair that caused a great deal of public outrage. Indignation led the Congress to take up the matter of revising election law, so that recount mechanisms would be introduced into the general elections. But the initiative, sponsored by Sen. Roberto Requião and Romeu Tuma, encountered fierce resistance from the authorities whose activities would be monitored under these provisions, and was targeted for disruption by the president of the TSE (Federal Elections Tribunal) at the time, through a scheme that few paid attention to. First, he asked the Senate, in his capacity as the head of the highest elections authority, to await input from his institution. He sent those in five days before the deadline for passing the bill if it were to take effect during the elections of 2002, reminding the Senators they required urgent action (i.e., no floor debate).

Among the 17 proposed amendments the TSE sent over, on plain paper rather than the TSE's official letterhead, one of them effectively did away with the printed vote function, by providing for prior selection, on election eve, of the voting machines to be used as an audit sample. The senator who sponsored the amendments, under loose rules for matters declared urgent, was awarded, two weeks later, a 15-month mandate as governor of his state, in a proceeding court case that had dragged on within the TSE for more than two years: the election of his opponent, in a bid he ran for governor of the state of Piauí in 1998, was impugned, based on a claim that the opponent's campaign finances were not up to snuff.

Then, in the lower house, the president of the TSE (where such laws are interpreted), suggested that the project be voted on as an urgent matter, through an agreement among party leadership and without debate or amendment, arguing that the law could, after all, still go into effect for the 2002 election, even if approved after the deadline. After the Requião-Tuma Bill was approved as suggested (Law 10,408/02), he then invited congress members to his chambers at the Supreme Court to inform them of his disappointing early misunderstanding on the date it would take effect: The law would not be applicable in the 2002 elections. As an excuse, he offered to have the elections authorities "test" the printed vote mechanism in 3% of the voting machines to be used in 2002, a mechanism that the Requião-Tuma Law had made obligatory, as he saw it, for the elections in 2004 and beyond.

A fox in the electoral hen house

Thus it was that the elections authorities proposed to "test" the mechanism that the legislature had chosen for monitoring its activities. The legislators accepted, with the results we observed. Failures in the instructions for how to set up the printers, failures in the training of voters, failures in voter registration, with careless excess of voters precisely in those sessions that offered the printed vote without proper instructions or information. Failures that led to long lines, frustrations and problems, ignored both by the corporate media and the self-evaluation that the TSE later published of its "test." Problems that the TSE self-evaluation and the corporate media blamed, as if obvious, on the audit mechanism itself, not on the bad faith of the agency it was designed to audit in "testing" it. This evaluation was prepared, and presented to Congress in early 2003, by the TSE president who not only run this scheme, but also, as a congressman and as he would admit months later, had smuggled articles into Brazil's current Constitution voted in 1988.

Then, based on this TSE self-evaluation, one senator, whose knack for creative accounting had given rise to the money-laundering and embezzlement scheme known as "Valerioduto", proposed a bill that would eliminate this monitoring procedure. The last shred of voters' right to recount votes after computerization would be eliminated before it was ever exercised. To replace it, Sen. Azeredo provided us with another creative innovation, what he called the "digital vote registry."As a justification, the Sen. said, as recorded in the Senate's official diary, May 9, 2003, page 10,112:

"The substitution proposed by the current Bill of the printed vote by the digital record of the vote for each office, with the identification of the voting machine on which the vote was recorded and the possibility of recovering it, perhaps for future analysis, while protecting the voter's privacy, will without a doubt increase the security and transparency of the elections process, making the printing of a record for the voter to check a dispensable measure."

Without a doubt? The Senator goes on, waxing enthusiastic:

"One will not fail to note the advantage, perhaps unique in the world, of the ability to analyze, whether by election researchers or by political parties, or by the candidates themselves and their supporters, each and every digital vote ... Naturally these studies will lead to the perfection of the Brazilian elections process and support the political reform that is still to be debated."

Political reform would be debated, but not during the floor debate on this bill. A manifesto by academic experts, signed by various professors of computer science and now bearing the signature of two thousand endorsers, sent to the senate, was simply ignored. As it was, too, later on in the lower house, when this crippled Bill was finally approved.

Playing fast and loose with elections law

In the House, after requesting and receiving the go-ahead for public hearings on the bill, the head of the Science & Technology commission refused to schedule hearings or to meet with signatories of the manifesto. And he stood by silently when the project disappeared from his committee, sleepwalking its way to the agenda of the plenary session on Sept. 27, 2003, where it was voted on the following day, as a matter of extreme urgency. As agreed by the leaders of the political parties, after a close-door meeting between these leaders and the president of the TSE. Approved by voice vote, with only one solitary protest from a member of congress, who complained of fraud in the procedure, one week before the lower house president's wife cashed in from the money-laundering and embezzlement scheme known as Valerioduto at a branch of the Rural Bank in a shopping mall in Brasilia.

Seven months later, responding to a request from a political party that rules be made on access to these "digital vote registry" records, the elections authorities of TSE, who lobbied for the law which set them up, took a stand to interpret it. On the efficacy of trading the printed vote for the purposes of conducting recounts and studies, they unanimously ruled, through Resolution 21,744 on May 11, 2004, which says:

"The questions that are to be decided by the court can be divided into three parts: ... (III) the submission of files containing the digital registry of votes to political parties and other interested persons. With respect to this matter ... I observe, on this point, that, on one hand, I have been persuaded by the arguments invoked for suppressing this handover of information, with identifying information about the precinct, based on the need to protect the secrecy of the vote."

And by the time we got to the elections of 2006 what was suppressed, by all accounts, was any and all publication of said digital registries of votes. This time for reasons which, although still unstated, go beyond the privacy rationale. Through the Official Act 8,206, in response to the director-general of the TRE-AL (regional elections court for the state of Alagoas), which had requested the encryption key for access to the content of the files of the digital vote registry for Election 2006 in that state, the director-general of the TSE, on Dec. 12, 2006, dispatched a low-ranking technician to deny that request "for reasons of security." The question begged by the reply, and not answered, being: "security for whom, against what from whom?"

That reply was truncated by means that surpass the limits of sound judicial practice. The TRE-AL director had requested the key in order to comply with a decision by a higher authority, from the President of the Electoral Investigative Commission of that state, Judge Resende Martins, in response to various petitions "... based on signs of irregularities in said election." In her dispatch, the IT technician whose signature appears on the TSE document denying the requested key, not being a lawyer or having a bachelor's in law, undertakes to interpret said "digital registry of votes" as something that "corresponds exactly to paper ballots", to base her denial on arcane provisions of the Elections Code. The principal effect of this denial was to block investigation into evidence of irregularities in that state Election, such as those raised in the report by Prof. Clovis Fernandes of the Air Force Technological Institute (ITA).

Other obstructions

A similar maneuver, this one with federal and state electoral authorities contradicting each other in opposite (dis)order, took place in São Paulo in the same elections. The full court of the TRE-SP, the higher electoral authority of that state, contradicting Art. 68 of (federal) Law 9,504/97 and TSE Resolution 22,232/06, issued rules negating the right of parties and voters to audit the precinct tally with copies of the Voting Machine Bulletins (BU), which can be printed by the machine at the command of the precinct captain. Now that elections are fully computerized, printed copies of BUs which are hand signed by the precinct captain, after closure of the voting session, are the only means that remains for parties and voters to monitor the tally, if they want to detect possible frauds such as voting machine "cloning," proxy voting, and database hacking, to which the local tallying phase is vulnerable. This is the phase where the BU are electronically prepared and recorded in a diskette at each voting machine, after which the diskettes are sent to a data center, where they are read and the BU data is added in a computer database at the state elections tribunals, for the total tallying.

In its Administrative Session on Sept. 21, 2006, the plenary of TRE-SP judges approved Representation 02/2006, authored by the body's information technology division (STI), in conformity with a published text. The person in charge of the STI in TRE-SP, who happens to be the same who controls the database in which the votes are totaled for the state of São Paulo, misinformed the TRE-SP judges about the size of the bobbin for the paper used with the voting machines. He said, in the Representation, that the machine might not have enough paper for printing the BUs, if up to ten political parties asked for copies, as provided by the federal Law and Resolutions cited above, and for a runoff election, if one was necessary. He said this in spite of detailed calculations that had previously been released, by the TSE at the request of a party that had already suffered this type of sabotage in previous elections, showing there was enough paper to comply with federal regulation.

Afraid that the machines might run out of paper during a runoff election, the judges unanimously approved, just ten days before the election, Representation 02 directing the TRE-SPs administrative directorate to issue Circular No. 12,523, instructing precinct captains to not provide party representatives with printed copies of the BUs, but to provide only a single copy to "a representative of the inter-party committee," something that does not exist in elections procedures or elections law. Before that, anticipating that decision by the TRE-SP, the STI there had already diligently replaced the manuals for precinct captains, prepared by the TSE, with a version that omitted the duty to turn over the BUs to any party monitor who requested a copy at the precinct, upon election closure, despite provisions in Law 9,504/97 setting penalties of up to three months in prison for an election official who withholds the document from a party monitor.

The Ends and the Means

If fraud occurs, it cannot be detected without effective monitoring. And if no fraud occurs, it is impossible to certify that fact without effective monitoring. Without effective monitoring, however, one thing is certain: Any political faction can elect itself, with or without real votes, corruptly and without getting caught and punished. Especially in proportional elections without district representation. The judges who may hear complaints are the same ones who control the process, the invisible vote-counting procedure, the rules for monitoring and external audits, and access to the means of evidence-gathering. With respect to a totally computerized system in which 99% of the voters have faith even without monitoring, and without wanting to monitor, another thing is certain as well: The persons directly responsible for carrying out the voting and the counting, in the IT divisions of the TREs and at their software and services suppliers, know this fully well.

And they doubtless know a few other things as well. On the mysteries of the holy byte. How hidden, inside manipulation of the system can bring them even more power. Coincidence or not, some of the most fervent evangelists of the sect of the holy byte are to be found among these IT staff, for whom, if the São Paulo case is any indication, to depend on paper is a mortal sin. Among them one find those who, when vendors approach electoral authorities with their new magic wands, run off to proclaim the gospel to the four winds, spouting fallacies and insults at those who caution against the risks of the virtual world. Usually the same who, when questionable operations or denouncements ensue, go running off the other way, to whisper in certain ears, the ears of electoral judges who feel embarrassed by their own lack of IT knowledge: "they are attacking your honor, your authority!" This tactic, which plays upon human vanity and the elitism of the judiciary, is what increasingly holds us hostage to this adventure in vanishing democracy here in Brazil.

Many have asked why, then, we do not go public to propose improvements, or really demonstrate how easy it is to commit fraud inside this system, if that it what I defend in various articles (for instance, this one). Why not do as other scientists have done in the U.S., with their voting machines, which happen to be from the same manufacturer and similar in model? The answer is simple. To demonstrate election fraud can be committed through them, as Prof. Felten of Princeton did in 4 minutes live at CNN, is a crime in Brazil. There, it is not. Anyone willing, using the methods we already published?

As to constructive proposals for effective monitoring of elections, the ones that we have presented, to electoral authorities at their request, in scientific meetings or through publications, have either been neglected or else adapted, as the case may be, with technical tweaking, disguised as improvements, whose effect has been to render them ineffective for monitoring, while yet able to crank more realistic smoke and mirrors. Deployed in their boxes with no disregard for others, out-of-the-black-box stunts, the latest fad being to crack down on campaign accounts of candidates.

Elections legislation as political instrument

When selectively applied, the rigorous approach to campaign accounting is, in effect, a useful political tool, fit to disguise as "elections monitoring". It has already served to benefit, in a dance of musical chairs for governor of Piauí­ in 2001, the Senator who pushed those amendments, drafted by the president of the TSE. The ones which neutralized the oversight provisions of the Requião-Tuma law. Timely monitoring, as prize for having electoral monitoring disarmed? It has also benefited, with foot-dragging, the Senator who later expunged voter oversight from Brazilian elections. The one who replaced the printed vote provision of Requião-Tuma law with his so-called "digital vote registry", based on his "vast experience" as IT manager: he's yet to be touched for his role, nine years ago, as architect and first beneficiary of the Belo Horizone Baldy money-laundering and embezzlement scheme. Timeless monitoring, as prize for having electoral monitoring replaced, by smoke-and-mirrors techno-legal wizardry?

The current climate favors the use of this political tool, since it is now fashionable to criminalize and decriminalize using the media. To criminalize, for example, the buying and selling of information on corruption and the corrupt, which is not in itself a crime, and to absolve others of suspicion, when it is convenient to paint them as victims of this traffic in information. For my own denouncements, I've been fortunate to avoid this traffic, counting on Google being free. But unfortunate to hit the fact that they interfere with corporate interests, counting them as they get buried by that traffic in corporate media. In any event, given that corporate media interests seem to now be focused on following money trails, it is worth a try to slip one by and poke them why do they not spend more time and effort asking: "Where did the money come from to get this adventure in computerizing elections rolling?"

In the book "The Digital Vote: Democratic Legitimacy," by a former IT secretary of the TSE, published in 1997 by Empresa das Artes, it is reported, always using the gerund, that half the cost of implanting the system, nearly US $250 million, is coming from a project of the Interamerican Development Bank (IBD), to whom the president of the TSE has promised to help deliver the Brazilian system to other countries.

In the meantime ...

However, the list of projects found on the IBD Web site does not include any reference to such financing or such a promise. Further, access to certain contracts that the TSE has signed for the purchase of voting machines and the outsourcing of software and services -- contracts that ought to be public -- has been denied to monitors from political parties in a timely manner, in a way that possible irregularities could be detected and acted upon. In Election 2002, for example, two parties that made such a request had to wait, one for more than two years, another indefinitely. 

Further, while the official propaganda speaks of the interest of various nations in the TSE's system, the details tell another story. We know that the TSE has been insisting that other countries try its system, and that many have rejected the offer, the only exception being Paraguay. Argentine has already passed three times, because the system cannot be monitored or used for a recount, but the TSE insists. The TSE has even banked, with money that probably comes from the Brazilian taxpayer, a fake election in certain precincts abroad, so that our hermanos can get accustomed to "modern elections." But our hermanos keep holding out.

The U.S. and Europe are heading in the opposite direction. More and more states and nations are banning elections without the possibility of a recount by common voters. And Ecuador, whose election authority hired a former technical adviser to the TSE to outsource the computerization of its 2006 election, was sorry it had, after the first round of the elections there, judging from the lawsuits that have resulted, which include the confiscation of the passport of an evangelist of the holy byte.

The PT (Workers' Party)

Judging from the treatment that the party now holding the presidency, the PT, received in 2006 at the hands of adversaries, of the corporate media and of the elections authorities, one would think twice about it having trusted so much, and so blindly, in an elections system so riddled with uncertainties and so dependent, with respect to its results, on the honesty of such a small group of people.

The argument according to which the computerization of elections helped the PT to grow and therefore the party should unconditionally support the actions and preferences of the elections authorities, even in its interactions with other branches of republican government, which has been publicly defended by technicians from the party rank and file, may have outlived its usefulness and its logic.

Debating political reform without debating the concentration of powers, which has gotten ever more serious in this branch of the Brazilian State as such adventure in vanishing democracy has progressed, would be, in my view, unproductive and dangerous for the future of our fragile institutions. It would be History repeating itself (from the First Republic), this time with an additional layer of farce.




The author

Pedro Antonio Dourado de Rezende is a tenured professor at Computer Science Department, University of Brasilia (UnB). ATC PhD in Applied Mathematics from University of California at Berkeley in 1983, heads the UnB Cryptography and Info Security Extension Program since 1997. Author of over one hundred articles on related topics, was a member of Brazil's Public Key Infrastructure Steering committee from 2003 to 2006, by presidential appointment as representativ of civil society.