How the Brazilian Bolsonaro built the myth of rigged elections | Catch My Job


Authors: Jack Nicas, Flavia Milhorance and Ana Ionova

Produced by Gray Beltran

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For years, President Jair Bolsonaro has attacked Brazil’s electoral systems.

One of his claims was that apparent patterns in the voting results showed evidence of fraud.

Live broadcast on Jair Bolsonaro’s Facebook page, July 2021

He has repeatedly said election officials are secretly counting votes, suggesting they could manipulate the results.

Live broadcast on Jair Bolsonaro’s YouTube page, April 2022

And he said he suspects hackers tried to steal his 2018 presidential election but failed.

Live broadcast on Jair Bolsonaro’s YouTube page, August 2021

Those claims are false, according to Brazilian election officials, fact-checking agencies and independent election security experts who have studied the country’s electronic voting system.

Yet in speeches, interviews and hundreds of social media posts, the president has consistently and methodically repeated those baseless claims and many others about Brazil’s voting system.

The result was a years-long campaign that undermined the faith of millions of Brazilians in the elections that support one of the world’s largest democracies. In a poll this month, three out of four supporters of Mr. Bolsonaro said they have little or no confidence in Brazil’s voting machines.

Now Brazil is preparing for turmoil. While Mr. Bolsonaro has warned about voter fraud for years, he has never lost an election in his three decades in politics. But in Sunday’s presidential race, he may face defeat.

And he suggested that he would not accept it.

About Tempo, September 2021

The New York Times reviewed hundreds of hours of Mr. Bolsonaro’s interviews, speeches and weekly live broadcasts and thousands of his social media posts to map his efforts over eight years to criticize or question the voting system.

The resulting picture shows an elected leader, first as a congressman and then as president, who has built a narrative of fraudulent elections based on inaccuracies, out-of-context reporting, circumstantial evidence, conspiracy theories and outright falsehoods – much like former President Donald J. Trump.

His evidence centered on apparent abnormalities in the voting process and results, often presented without attribution, and he framed hypothetical scenarios of fraud as far more likely than they were.

As Mr Bolsonaro has risen to power and fame, his claims have been amplified by members of Brazil’s Congress, conservative pundits and his grown sons, as well as a wider network of disinformation peddlers, according to the Times analysis, which also drew on a live database compiled by Brazil’s Piaui magazine.

Despite his claims, there has been no evidence of fraud in electronic voting machines since Brazil began using them in 1996, according to independent experts, Brazilian election officials and foreign governments, including the United States.

Instead, the machines have helped eliminate the voter fraud that once plagued Brazil’s elections in the age of paper ballots.

But the system is unique. Brazil is the only country in the world that collects and counts votes completely digitally, without paper backups.

Mr. Bolsonaro saw this as a major flaw: without backups, he claims, one can never be sure that each person’s ballot has been accurately counted.

Congresso em Foco, July 2022

Election security experts say multiple layers of security prevent fraud or errors.

  • Officials test hundreds of machines on Election Day to make sure they are recording votes correctly.
  • Votes at each polling station are counted publicly, ensuring they match the national tally.
  • Some of the machine software source code is reviewed by external experts.
  • Most voters use their fingerprints to unlock the machines, while others present photo identification to poll workers.
  • And the machines are not connected to the Internet, which significantly reduces the chances of hacking.

Mr. Bolsonaro began criticizing voting machines while still a congressman, right after the 2014 presidential election. That year’s center-right presidential candidate disputed the results of the narrow loss and demanded a review. The audit showed no fraud.

That was not enough for Mr. Bolsonaro.

Video of the House of Representatives, October 2015

Mr. Bolsonaro has promised to end the all-electronic system. In 2015, he helped Congress pass a measure to require paper backups. But the Supreme Court vetoed the change, saying it would violate citizens’ right to keep their vote secret.

Mr. Bolsonaro claimed the decision showed the political establishment was protecting a vulnerable system to help leftists rig the next election.

In those elections, in 2018, Mr. Bolsonaro ran for president. He then suggested that the election results could not be trusted because of the voting machines.

UOL, September 2018

Then he won.

However, Mr Bolsonaro still claimed he had cheated. Without evidence, he claimed that the election only went to the second round because the left stole the votes.

If the results were clean, he said, he would have won the first round.

As president, he continued to push baseless claims of fraud.

He often relies on hearsay, presenting unattributed reports of irregularities in the voting process as evidence that something is amiss.

Live broadcast on Jair Bolsonaro’s Instagram page, June 2021

In July 2021, while he was president, he announced that he would once and for all show proof that the system is full of fraud. Instead, in a two-hour live stream on social media, he again pointed to a series of glaring aberrations.

He showed a local news report from 2008 in which some voters in a rural area claimed their votes had not been counted properly. (Federal police investigated and said there was no fraud.)

It showed a video of a developer who claimed to demonstrate how voting machines were hacked in 2018. (Experts and fact-checkers said the video was riddled with errors, including a fundamental misunderstanding of how the voting system works.)

And it showed a montage of people complaining that the machines wouldn’t let them vote. (Election officials said any machines that don’t work are quickly replaced. In many cases, officials say, the problem is voter error.)

Some of his central evidence was a tabulation of vote results that he said showed unusual patterns. He claimed that the ordering of the results was almost statistically impossible, suggesting that the algorithm controls the returns.

Live broadcast on Jair Bolsonaro’s Facebook page, July 2021

Election officials and experts said he provided inaccurate information.

Mr. Bolsonaro later invited foreign ambassadors to the presidential palace for another presentation that he promised would prove the fraud. Instead, he repeated old complaints.

This year, he enlisted Brazil’s military in his fight, saying it would ensure the vote was safe. The armed forces analyzed the system and proposed a series of minor changes. In response, election officials adjusted how they planned to test the machines on Election Day. The military has since suggested it is comfortable with the system.

Yet in the weeks before the first round of voting earlier this month, Mr Bolsonaro continued to raise doubts.

SBT News, September 2022

On October 2, he won 43 percent of the vote, trailing his opponent, former president Luis Inacio Lulu da Silva, by six million votes — far better than polls had predicted.

But a few days later, without providing any evidence, he suggested there had been fraud.

Live broadcast on Jair Bolsonaro’s YouTube page, October 2022

Brazil’s military, which monitored voting during the first round, found no signs of fraud, said a senior military official who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak publicly. Government Mr. Bolsonara did not make public the army’s findings.

Officials in Brazil and abroad are now worried that if Mr. Bolsonaro lost on Sunday, claiming votes were stolen and calling on his supporters to take to the streets and demand he stay in power.

At a rally this month, he told supporters to gather at polling stations when the results were announced. As the crowd chanted his nickname – “the legend” – he told them there was no way his opponent would win.

Live broadcast on Jair Bolsonaro’s Facebook page, October 2022


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