[This post was originally published on Ushahidi's blog. Ushahidi is an open-source mapping tool that was developed in Kenya at a time of crisis in 2008 and has since been used for crowdsourcing worldwide.]
School children being told to chant candidates’ names by their teachers. Civil servants getting sacked for not campaigning for their political bosses. Zinc roofing being traded for votes. The public wholesaling of voters’ personal data to campaigners. Death threats to those who denounce electoral crimes.
Welcome to the unpleasant side of Brazilian electioneering.
These are just some of the reports coming from Eleitor 2010, a “crowdsourcing” project aiming to facilitate citizen reports of abuses of the electoral process in Brazil.
In the largest democracy in Latin America – with over 120 million voters – this year, voters go to the polls they will be choosing the successor of one of the country's most popular Presidents in history (Luiz Inácio “Lula” da Silva) but also voting on governors, a large portion of Congress.
Every country has its own unique political culture and oddities. Even the most minimal democracy has its own rules around electioneering, the mechanics of the vote, and ensuring that the state regulates the electoral process.
Brazil was one of the first democracies of its size to use electronic voting machines. It also has compulsory voting. But other aspects of its electoral process are unique, including attempts to strictly regulate of online campaigning, vote buying and what are called “showmícios” (concert-rallies).
Brazil has very clear and comprehensive laws regulating elections but the problem is enforcing these laws.
There is a real culture of politicians subverting the law, maintaining a privileged position as patrons of voters in Brazil. This stems from a distant colonial past and continued persistent inequality, where entrenched elite interests have maintained themselves.
The idea behind Eleitor 2010, which is a purely volunteer, non-partisan project run by a virtual team with zero funding, is to engage the voter beyond the day of the election. According to Paula Góes and Diego Casaes, its creators – who met via Twitter and now collaborate on Global Voices Online, the project is to promote critical and active citizenship, that challenges some of the arcane and undemocratic practices mentioned above.
Eleitor 2010 runs on the open source software Ushahidi, a web-based platform which received much attention for its utility in mapping incidents after the Haiti earthquake, driven by SMS reports from the ground.
Ushahidi has yet to reach its full potential as an election monitoring platform, say Góes and Casaes. With an estimated 25% of the country online every day, and one of the highest mobile subscriber rates in Latin America, they hope Brazil could be the place where it comes of age this year. Four weeks away from the election, Eleitor 2010 already has 230+ reports, from every state in the country, and from the most remote areas.
However, it is an uphill battle to get the message out about the platform, in a country where broadcast and print media are still strong, held in the hands of a privileged elite bent on defending its interests.
Despite this, the communications team at Eleitor 2010 has generated some media attention, and networking with other online transparency initiatives has been crucial. Google recently featured Eleitor 2010 on its page dedicated to the Brazilian elections.
Góes and Casaes hope that with their awareness campaign – on social networks including Orkut with over 40 million users, partnerships with networks of internet cafés, NGOs, and social movements – Eleitor 2010 will break through and change the way thousands of voters engage in the electoral process.
Through the plaftorm, some entertaining anecdotes have already come to light, well in advance of the October 3 vote.
Voters caught one man in a small town in the interior selling off Twitter accounts with 40,000+ followers for the sickeningly low price of US$125. This is illegal under Brazilian electoral law. When confronted, the man in question gave more incriminating evidence and then threatened to sue Eleitor 2010. The evidence, including screenshots and transcript of a chat with him, were delivered to the Electoral Courts.
Another comic report from São Paulo, where teachers at a school illegally encouraged children to chant for two candidates, one for mayor and one for President, and it backfired with children instinctively chanting “Lula!” “Lula!” The video circulated widely, and has had over 70,000 views.
Another video that raised eyebrows was one by blogger Ricardo Gama of a VW bus owned by the City Hall being used for a campaign in Rio de Janeiro. The blogger shouts “Are you carrying electoral propaganda in the car of the City Hall? This is an electoral crime! I filmed it. I am going to denounce you.”
From the north of Brazil, in the state of Maranhão, word reached Eleitor 2010 that a network of evangelical churches was offering to “trade” 3,000 votes for “support” after the election. In the state of São Paulo, one Bishop implored the faithful not to support President Lula’s chosen successor, Dilma Roussef.
These examples indicate how this platform and online, participatory tools will be of use in years to come. No matter whether it goes “viral” and becomes a household name, Eleitor 2010 and other transparency initiatives have already become game-changers this election year.