If the thought of voting for either candidate in the US election made you nauseous or plain angry, spare some thought for Brazilians.
Many of their politicians are in deep trouble with corruption scandals, and the public is still forced to show up to the polls — by law.
Voting is mandatory in Brazil, just like in a dozen other Latin American countries and several nations around the world. Every literate Brazilian between the ages of 18 and 70 has to vote. It’s voluntary for those 16 to 18 and over 70. Military conscripts cannot vote.
There are ways to protest. Brazilians can “annul” their vote by writing in a candidate who doesn’t exist. Or they can submit a blank ballot. But by law they must at least show up and cast a vote.
Failure to vote results in a small fine of about $1.50. It can also lead to a bunch of other penalties related to not acquiring the documented proof that you voted, a key step in Brazil’s infamous bureaucracy. That document is required for applying for a passport, government-backed loans, and even certain jobs.
Historically, compulsory voting aimed to rekindle public interest in Brazil’s young democracy by obligating citizens to participate in free elections after a long period of dictatorship.
“In the past, the expansion of the vote, the expansion of suffrage was a very popular cause,” said Mauricio Santoro, a political consultant and professor in Rio de Janeiro. “When we became a democracy again 30 years ago, it was in the middle of a giant mobilization to vote for president.”
How things change.
Two weeks ago, cities across Brazil held mayoral elections. In Rio, a record high of 41.5 percent of voters either voted blank or annulled their ballot, a pattern that was seen across the country.
That’s because the public is disgusted with politics, Santoro said. A majority of the nation’s lawmakers face criminal investigations or charges, according to Focus on Congress, a group that tracks the Brazilian legislature. The bitter impeachment of President Dilma Rousseff further eroded many Brazilians’ faith in their political system.
Julia Crete-Souza showed up on Oct. 30 for the second round of municipal elections, but didn’t vote for either candidate.
“Neither of the two finalists was my preferred candidate,” she said, while shopping for houseplants in Rio’s Botafogo neighborhood last week. “I think it was the worst election, the candidates were the worst, and that’s why there were so many abstentions and so many spoiled ballots.”
In several interviews with the Brazilian public, not one person said they support the compulsory voting law. Some even said the rule is an affront to democracy. A 2014 poll found that a record 61 percent of Brazilians were against the mandatory ballot. Since then, the country’s political scandals have ramped up considerably.
“[Politicians] do such stupid things. They steal from us like hell, and we’re still obliged to go there and vote for them, put them in place again!” said voter Luis Carlos, who only gave his first names. “The media tell us that we have to go there and do our duty, and we continue doing it, voting them all back in and they continue doing the same thing: stealing, stealing, stealing, stealing.”
Compulsory voting in Brazil aims to decrease voting inequality by encouraging as many people as possible to vote, regardless of background. But a 2015 paper, by researchers from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and the University of Sao Paulo, argued that the country’s penalties actually increase voting inequality.
Middle- and upper-class voters are disproportionately affected by not being able to apply for a passport, for example. That means they’re more likely to show up to vote rather than face the consequences, the researchers argued.
However, for some voters, like Regina de Fatio, who can remember the dictatorship of the 1960s, '70s and '80s, voting remains a pleasure and a privilege.
“Incredible as it seems, I love to vote, so I voted” de Fatio said. “But I agree that it shouldn’t be compulsory. I think it should be optional.”