The ballot is the fundamental instrument of democracy in the modern world. Perhaps more than any other device utilized in contemporary elections, it has come to embody the process by which voter preferences structure the makeup of the ruling elite. Yet most citizens of democratic polities take for granted the series of institutional innovations in the dissemination and composition of the ballot that made it possible for this instrument to serve today as a symbol of the free and authentic convictions of voters. Among such innovations, it was a specific packet of reforms in ballot preparation and distribution, the so-called Australian ballot reforms, which were responsible for one of the most crucial turning points in the history of democracy - the transition from de jure to de facto secrecy in vote choice.

This project will provide a rigorous examination of how the use of the Australian ballot (AB)- a uniform ballot paper permitting the selection of any registered candidate and which is printed and distributed by electoral authorities (as opposed to candidates or parties)- affected the fundamental structure of party politics in Brazil after its introduction in the early 1960s. Engaging the claims of a literature on institutions and clientelism in developing democracies, the impact of the AB on four key outcomes will be evaluated: 1) the electoral strength of incumbent state party machines; 2) the degree of electoral control enjoyed by local vote brokers; 3) the electoral strength of right parties; and 4) the scope of participation in the electoral process.

In order to get leverage on the impact of the AB, this project will examine municipal-level vote returns for federal deputy and senate contests in Brazil during the 1958-1966 period. The analysis will exploit the fact that the peculiar manner in which the AB was rolled out by the country's civilian and military rulers created a natural experiment of history of exceptionally rare purity. During this period, legislative elections - which put seats for both the Chamber of Deputies and Senate simultaneously up for grabs - were held at three different times: 1958, 1962, and 1966. In 1958, the AB was in effect throughout all of Brazil for senatorial contests, whereas candidate printed ballots were utilized throughout all of Brazil for the deputy contests. In 1962, the AB remained in effect for all of Brazil for the senatorial contests but was also extended to deputy contests in the state of São Paulo, the city of Rio de Janeiro, and state capitals. In 1966, basically the same situation obtained, save for the fact that the AB for deputy contests was extended further to all municipalities with more than one hundred thousand inhabitants. Taking maximal advantage of the geographically and institutionally targeted and temporally staggered nature of ballot reform in Brazil, this project will employ several variants of the difference-in-difference technique to estimate the causal impact of the AB on the outcomes of interest.

Empirically evaluating the impact of the AB on the structure of political representation has been one of the great challenges of institutionally oriented social science. It is a task which has courted the efforts of political scientists, economists, and historians, and one which has spawned numerous investigations into the historical experiences of polities around the world. Given the peculiarities of the AB's adoption in Brazil, it is reasonable to posit that the current project has the potential to produce the cleanest evaluation of the impact of this institution in the entire social science corpus on the subject. As a consequence, the findings of this project are likely to contribute to ongoing policy debates about the attractiveness of adopting the AB within polities that have not yet done so. More broadly, the research design employed by this project may in the future serve as a model of how to simultaneously exploit spatial, temporal, and institutional variation in the adoption of formal rules in order to estimate the impact of aspects of democratic institutional design. The project will also have a lasting impact in terms of training graduate students and educating undergraduates. The substantial administrative and coding duties required of each group of students will provide a hands on tutorial on the organization and execution of large scale quantitative research projects in the social sciences.

Project Report

The broad objective of the project is to improve understanding of the manner in which voting technologies affect political behavior. To do so, it examines a change in voting technology believed to be among the most consequential for the nature of democratic representation: the transition from a system of nominal vote secrecy to a system of full vote secrecy. In the modern era, when scholars refer to this transition, they are typically referring to a very specific institutional change: the adoption of the so-called Australian Ballot (AB). This is the institutional change studied in the current project. What did the adoption of the AB entail? In many countries, including the US and Brazil, the adoption of the AB was preceded by a system in which nominally secret voting was enacted through privacy guarantees provided at the moment of suffrage, usually in the form of closed voting booths and a requirement that ballots not have markings that could identify individual voters. In such contexts, parties and/or candidates printed ballot papers themselves and distributed them, via campaign workers, to potential voters. The ballots utilized in such circumstances were specific to the candidate or party, and represented a vote only for that individual or organization. This state of affairs allowed candidates or campaign workers to condition any benefits (or punishments) targeted to individual voters on their receipt of the candidate or party printed ballot. In an AB system, by contrast, all ballots---printed by the state at public expense---have an identical format, permit the selection of any registered candidate, and are allocated to voters inside the polling station by electoral authorities. As such, the capacity to monitor individual vote choice is much reduced by the adoption of the AB. At the same time, the AB also imposes new educational requirements on voting, as the ability to read the printed word may become a prerequisite for casting a valid ballot. This project draws upon the unusual historical experience of Brazil to conduct the most rigorous scholarly evaluation of the political impact of the AB ever conducted. In that country, the AB was introduced in the 1950s and 1960s in a staggered form. Indeed, there were three dimensions of variation in the adoption of the AB: 1) spatial (differential adoption of the AB across states); 2) temporal (differential adoption of the AB over time); 3) institutional (differential timing of the adoption of the AB for different types of elected offices—federal deputy vs. senatorial office). By simultaneously exploiting these three dimensions of variation, the project is able to make clear inferences about how the AB affected the ideological balance of power in the party system, the strength of rural bosses, and the capacity of citizens to meaningfully participate in the electoral process. The primary data collected for this project consist of municipal-level vote returns, broken down by candidate and party, for federal deputy and senate contests held in Brazil in 1958, 1962, 1966, and 1970. These returns are housed in the archives of regional electoral tribunals located in the capital of each Brazilian state. A team of research assistants, composed of Brazilian nationals, was contracted to visit these archives and provide a digitized copy of the returns. Upon receipt of the returns, these were then coded into electoral format by a team of graduate and undergraduate research assistants at the University of Virginia. All told, the construction of this project’s dataset entailed the hiring of twenty different assistants and required thousands of man hours of effort. Analysis of the data shows that the adoption of the AB sharply increased the fraction of valid votes cast in favor of parties of the Left, confirming a recent claim in the literature. However, the project demonstrates that the reason it had this effect lies primarily with the remarkable obstacle to voting the AB created for voters suffering from functional illiteracy. In particular, the study shows that the AB engendered a massive increase in wasted votes, i.e. the casting of blank or null ballots. Moreover, this increase was most pronounced in areas where levels of literacy were low. As is often the case in agrarian settings, voters in such areas were likely to be under the influence of rural bosses and tended to vote for the parties of the Right. By making the act of voting unintelligible to such citizens, the AB made it impossible for them to vote as their boss had dictated, even if they were otherwise inclined to do so. Ironically, therefore, the AB strengthened the hand of Left parties by disenfranchising the extremely poor and uneducated. The larger policy lesson to be learned from these findings is that, depending upon the institutional and educational context in which ballot reform is to be implemented, there may be an important trade-off between ballot secrecy and accessibility.

National Science Foundation (NSF)
Division of Social and Economic Sciences (SES)
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Brian D. Humes
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University of Virginia
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