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About the Author

Domenic Caturello is a rising Junior at Harvard College studying Government. A Boston native, he has been studying Portuguese for a year, a pursuit which led him to participate in DRCLAS’ 2021 Remote Summer Program interning with a Brazilian think tank, the Fundação Getulio Vargas.

Vote Buying in Brazilian Elections

by | Aug 6, 2021

How much does a vote cost? Political machines from Chicago to Rome have long struggled to find a definitive answer to this question. If a politician or a party has the financial and organizational wherewithal to garner voters’ support with direct gifts, they can improve electoral outcomes without necessarily “improving” as servants to the public interest and to the democracies in which they operate. The simple term for this behavior is “vote buying,” and this summer, I am studying its presence in Brazil with the Fundação Getúlio Vargas (FGV), one of Brazil’s eminent organizations for political science research.

The term “vote buying” is fairly self-explanatory; it refers to the political phenomenon in which voters vote a certain way in return for some reward from a politician or party. It is a quid-pro-quo exchange of voting power for material rewards. Another term often used to describe this phenomenon is “clientelism,” which may require more explaining. Vote buying purely refers to the simple exchange of goods for a vote. Clientelism, however, indicates a relationship between the voter and a political entity in which the political entity secures the voter’s support in return for goods. This relationship may be durable, spanning numerous election cycles. We could say, then, that “relational” clientelism is chronic vote buying.

I call clientelism a “chronic” issue because it is, truly, an issue: it is a plague to the system of democratic governance. The most fundamental backbone of representative government is the free vote, the guarantee that every eligible voter may influence the makeup of their government by voicing their political preferences at the ballot box. When a voter is “bought out,” they use their vote at the behest of the politicians, precisely the opposite of how voting is meant to function in a democracy, that is, politicians working at the behest of the voters, who signal their approval or disapproval of this work with their ballots.

This undemocratic turning of the tables in the relationship between politicians and voters has been referred to as “perverse accountability,” since these politicians are no longer held accountable at the ballot box, and instead attempt to hold voters accountable there to ensure that they vote in the agreed-upon manner. Indeed, this is a grave issue of voter rights: when a voter is bought out, they are, in a sense, disenfranchised. Their vote is no longer their own.

In my research with the FGV, I am focusing on a specific subset of individuals in clientelistic relationships called “brokers.” To put it simply, brokers are clientelistic middlemen. They mediate in the exchange between voters and politicians or political parties. A political entity looking to buy voters may employ these individuals at the local level to manage the party’s business of vote buying in his or her own vicinity, a sort of grassroots, divide-and-conquer strategy. Brokers are often community figures who live within the community and are known well by its members, which ensures that brokers can successfully keep in contact with—and hold accountable—the voters who are bought out.

Demonstrations for a 2020 campaign in the state of Amazonas. Those in red shirts are likely brokers.

Brokers are occasionally viewed in a more positive light than clientelism at large, since they collect information on voters’ needs and desires to communicate to politicians, perhaps improving public policy efficiency, and may also secure access to public services for their own communities, such as potable water or medical services, as a gift in exchange for votes. But belying even their most “philanthropic” actions is the end-goal of political gain; brokers are not public servants. And the goods they offer voters often seem far from innocent on the exterior: brokers commonly use direct gifts of cash to persuade voters to vote the broker’s way, a form of blatant bribery that takes particular advantage of the financial plight of the poor.

Brazil is a particularly exciting case to study because it presents itself as a near-perfect candidate for brokerage in clientelistic politics. Intuitively, parties would be likely to make use of brokers for vote buying in countries with very large voting populations, as well as those with very large land areas, because coordinating a national vote-buying effort in those circumstances would be comparatively difficult. As one of the largest countries in the world in terms of land area, and boasting a voting population of nearly 150 million, not to mention mandatory voting for those aged 18-69, Brazil is certainly among the nations theoretically most fit for brokerage in the world. Sure enough, in a recent AmericasBarometer survey, just over half of Brazilians reported knowing a broker in their community, an astounding number with serious implications for the condition of the Brazilian democracy.

But how does one go about empirically studying brokerage? Brokerage in general is a well-documented topic in political science research, but our specific area of interest, brokerage in modern-day Brazil, is largely terra incognita. Thankfully, there is a fair amount of public opinion survey data from the past ten years in Brazil (and across Latin America) that includes topics relevant to brokerage; my current research attempts to draw conclusions from this data. There is a wealth of electoral data from Brazilian elections in these periods as well, and we hope to incorporate electoral data into the analysis in the future to craft a more holistic viewpoint on brokerage in Brazil. Electoral data allows us to observe how public opinion translates to electoral brokerage.

Previous research on brokerage has often focused on Argentina’s Peronist party, the Partido Justicialista. Pictured is their logo.

Our study on brokerage in Brazil addresses a variety of fascinating questions: what groups of voters are particularly vulnerable targets for brokers? How do these voters feel about brokerage? Do these feelings change depending on what the broker has to offer? To go about answering these questions, we have identified a set of demographic categories into which we separate respondents to the public opinion surveys, including gender, age, partisanship, region, education level, and the size of the municipality in which they live. Though the results of this research are forthcoming, I believe we are uncovering trends that will provide important insight into the workings of clientelistic politics in today’s Brazil, and, hopefully, applicable lessons to the study of brokerage across the world.

In my home country of the United States, the right to vote has always been a focal point of the struggle for democracy. In the last year or so, efforts to bolster—and to undermine—voting rights in America have found themselves in the spotlight, and the topic has become increasingly salient in politics at all levels. Studying clientelism in Brazil this summer has been, for this reason, an illuminating experience for me. After all, the fight for democracy is an international one. And in this era of world history in which democratic backsliding seems all too common, no country can afford to grapple with these topics on an island. It will take an international community united in a bond of solidarity and eager to learn from one another’s experiences to ensure the safeguarding of democratic freedoms all around the world.

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