Brazil’s Electoral College

The United States positions itself uniquely in having  a system like the Electoral College to choose its commander-in-chief. This system has now become hotly debated in this year’s Democratic primary, with prominent candidates like Bernie Sanders calling for electoral reform via scrapping the Electoral College altogether. With such a unique and controversial system, it becomes easy to wonder how it would work in other countries, what the implications and effects might be, and its potential for being useful in providing data on other issues, namely under and over-representation of states. 

Brazil has a bicameral legislature in which the number of senators—and, more importantly, representatives—has not changed since re-democratization in 1988. With partisan politics  in constant flux in Brazil, comparing the national popular vote alongside the number of states won also helps to show whether the electoral college is a stable system or an obstacle to legitimate democracy.

    The electoral college is an indirect way of electing a president in which points are awarded in a winner-take-all manner based on the result of state elections. Whichever candidate wins a plurality of votes in a state wins all of their electoral college points. By adding the number of federal representatives with the number of senators in each state, a state’s electoral college delegation is determined.

In this thought experiment, the hypothetical Brazilian electoral college works in the same fashion. Given the way in which points are awarded, the amount of points a state has is linked directly to that state’s representation in Congress.  In order to truly appreciate the thought experiment presented, a brief glance at the regional composition of the country is called for. There are a total of five regions: the North, Northeast, Midwest, Southeast, and South (figure 1). This thought experiment is simply meant to pose the question of what a Brazilian electoral college would look like, not a comparison between the US electoral college and Congress. It is, rather, a comparison between the American electoral system and a hypothetical Brazilian one, both based on the same rules.

Figure 1 | This map shows the 5 main regions in which Brazil is divided: North, Northeast, Midwest, Southeast, and Northeast. The Southeast is by far the most populated and also the economic center for the Brazilian economy.

After finishing the maps and looking at the numbers, this thought experiment proved to be more than just a trivial hypothetical implementation of a foreign system of elections. It conclusively showed something many might consider to be a problem: the under-representation of the Southeast as well as the over representation of the North and Northeast. Around 42% of the Brazilian population live in the states of São Paulo, Rio de Janeiro, Minas Gerais, and Espírito Santo, yet these states collectively only have around 32% of the representatives in the lower house (graph 1). That, combined with the fact that the state of São Paulo is constrained by a legislated maximum of 70 representatives when proportionally it would have around 110—a 40 member gap—larger than the entire delegation for the state of Texas, adds to this distortion. 

Click through our collection of the last 3 Brazilian presidential electoral college maps


Pair that with a minimum of 8 representatives for states that strictly proportionally would have 1 representative, like the state of Amapá, and it only adds to this complaint. The North, for instance, comprises  less than 9% of the population, but has almost 15% of the seats in Congress. The Northeast also has more seats than it should have, but it is a lower difference of around 3% (27% population to almost 30% of seats). For a country that made its congressional elections a proportionally representative system rather than a single-member district system, it is surprising, not to mention a hypocrisy, for regions not to be represented proportionally according to their population.

The biggest winners are left-wing populist interests. The Northeast is the region that most benefits from social programs and government spending, with every state in the region using more tax money than what they give. This also means that more moderate centrist groups, as well as the centre-right lose a lot of power as a result, especially the state of São Paulo. This distribution only helps to promote the fragmentation of Congress to an even greater extent by not allowing one region to have a slight upper hand.

    Many argue that is the very point of this kind of distribution: if São Paulo had 110 representatives, then most policy would benefit that state. But imposing a limit on representation could be argued to be undemocratic, even if it means stopping a region benefiting more than another. Having 9% of the population halting what over 40% want because of a weighted representation system has its own implications. 

As much as Madison’s warning against a tyranny of the majority is something I couldn’t agree with more, such a distorted distribution in the house made precisely  to represent the people as democratically as possible is even more unjust. For those that argue big states would be too powerful if delegations were proportional, it shouldn’t be forgotten that the Senate gives a large advantage to smaller states by affording a minimum of 3 senate seats to every Brazilian state. 

If the lower house were to attempt to pass policies that only favored the Southeast, the Senate would not allow this to happen, forcing compromise and negotiation with the Southeastern delegation. That is the foundation of democracy: finding a middle ground that allows for all voices to be heard. The Senate is a clear check on large delegations in the lower house, the definition of ambition counteracting ambition.

The lower house exists precisely to represent the direct interests of the people, which is why it has to follow the population’s distribution. It is unnecessary that small states not only have a clear advantage in the Senate, but also in the house that is meant to ensure the voice of the people is heard as well. This map might never be used to make an electoral college for Brazil, but it certainly shows the duplicity of a country that made proportional representation of citizens a corner stone in its Constitution, and yet distorts the one institution of government that is meant to represent the Brazilian population the most.

    The second discussion this raises is whether an electoral college is something Brazil ought to implement or not. The electoral college was implemented by the founders because it gave the power of elections to states and not the federal government. Should a president change the rules of elections, it would mean their party or even they as a single candidate would have an enormous advantage in election cycles. 

By letting states control  elections, this creates, theoretically, a system of elections less prone to corruption and a lower likelihood of the federal government  manipulating results. Not only that, but given that the United States is meant to be a federation that takes states’ rights into strong consideration, allowing states to make internal choices arguably allows states to be properly represented in elections. Recent arguments against this system are that it is not democratic. 

Most importantly, however, the electoral college could arguably contribute to political discourse in two ways: by making the threshold for presidential candidates higher, as well as reducing polarization and encouraging compromise.

Firstly, although it is true that it is possible for a president to lose the national popular vote, they still have to win a plurality of votes in states. The reason this is important is that candidates have to be able to represent and satisfy the will of many states, not concentrate on the largest ones. For example, a president could win the elections in Brazil by focusing on the 3 most populated states (São Paulo, Rio de Janeiro and Minas Gerais), all located in the Southeast region, alongside the South (with Paraná, Santa Catarina, and Rio Grande do Sul). These two regions already have more than 50% of the population, so all a candidate has to do is appease these states and they can win. By having essentially 27 elections across the states, candidates are encouraged to have a more distributed vote across the country, since they can win a state by however much they want, but if they don’t win the electoral college, that surplus was for nothing.

In short, the electoral college encourages candidates to focus on local issues that  multiple states experience instead of appeasing a handful of populated states. 

Secondly, it can reduce polarization and encourage compromise since candidates have to expand their policy agenda to more than a select number of densely populated states. For example, an electoral college could encourage or even force the Workers’ Party to attempt to attract more voters beyond the Northeast, instead of winning by large margins in that region and gaining a small portion of votes in the rest of the country sufficient to ensure they pass the 50% threshold nationally. It would force them to cut down on the populist rhetoric since people outside the Northeast and North are less favorable to more spending and large social programs, bringing the party more to the center. It would have a similar effect on the Brazilian right, trying to win votes in key Northeastern states, instead of giving up.

By making voters in smaller states count more than those in bigger states, it helps to balance the unequal distribution of the population, ensuring the protection of smaller pockets of the Brazilian population to be dictated to by the interest of large states. It is democratic, but at the state level, not the national one.

    All of this goes to say however, that Brazil should not implement an electoral college. The foundation of American democracy was based on the concept of states’ rights, the impetus for an electoral college in the first place. Brazil has always had centralized governments, from the time of the Brazilian Empire and throughout dictatorial regimes, a significant  influence on the Brazilian mentality of how federalism should work. People are far too used to a national popular vote, and without a strong political tradition like the American one, it would be a hard sell for the average voter to accept such a systematic overhaul of long-set election rules.

Even though the electoral college would help in making less populated states more relevant, these maps show that the winner of the popular vote will win the electoral college vote regardless, with different margins of course, but with the same ultimate result, making the implementation of a new and complex electoral system burdensome and confusing to the Brazilian electorate. 

Most importantly, however, the foundations and the logic of America’s politics are what makes the electoral college something that had to be created to ensure the willing participation of smaller states, and what makes this system something that should remain being used. Brazil has a functional and robust electoral system, ranging from the popular vote to the use of electronic ballots, so changing the system would be unpopular and unproductive. Although this thought experiment was interesting in showing the distortion of representation as well as showing the application of this unique system outside the US, it should remain just that, because as the saying goes: if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.

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