Voting is mandatory in Brazil, although this doesn’t mean that Brazilians actually go the polls. Abstention rates were the highest since 1988, the first general election after the military dictatorship. Almost a quarter of voters didn’t even show up to cast their ballots – and the number doesn’t count blank and invalid votes, where an elector purposefully types a number not attributed to any candidate. This turnout, or lack thereof, highlights a well-known reality: that Brazil is currently experiencing a representation crisis.
By no means is this a phenomenon exclusive to Brazil. Other countries battle with low voter turnout and a major disinterest for politics. In Brazil, it shows how disconnected political parties are from everyday people. It’s therefore not a surprise that the new mayor of São Paulo is a businessman who has no previous experience running for office. Right-wing candidate João Doria has said time and time again during the campaign: “I’m not a politician. I’m a businessman, an administrator.” This is not the first time that São Paulo voters have chosen a newcomer. Four years ago, the Workers’ Party’s Fernando Haddad was elected with the slogan “A new man for a new time.”
Doria had 53 percent of the valid votes, but the number of people who abstained from voting, or who nullified their choice, was actually higher than those who voted for him. While there is no question about his victory, this data reveals the level of disenchantment felt by Brazilians for politicians. “The problem with having the support of a small share of voters is that the pressure on the new administrations will quickly mount if the mayors don’t show quick results,” explains political scientist Carlos Melo, a professor at Insper business school and columnist for plus55.
We at plus55 believe that abstaining from voting is a mistake. One of the candidates will win the election. In Brazil, only “valid” votes count. Voting blank or nullifying your choice simply makes it easier for the leading candidate, who as a result will require fewer votes to win. “Parties must rethink themselves. They can’t connect to the young voters anymore,” says Rosangela Giembinsky, vice-president of the NGO Voto Consciente whose aim is to encourage political awareness.
Three years ago, young Brazilians took to the streets in protest of the established parties, accusing them of not representing ordinary citizens. Recent surveys showed that for millennials and teens, politics constitute one of the most important aspects of their lives. And yet, young people are less likely to vote. Only 40 percent of teens between the ages of 16 and 18 (for whom voting is optional) registered themselves at the Electoral Justice.
There’s also another factor that might help explain the low voter turnout. Brazilians are realizing that the penalties for absenteeism are far from harsh; if you fail to show up, you’re simply required to pay a fine of $1. It’s cheaper than an espresso.