How voters choose their members of Congress

. Sep 27, 2018
How voters choose their members of Congress Elections for Congress are overlooked in Brazil

In any democracy, choosing members of Congress is always crucial to determine the possibilities of the next administration. However, in some presidential systems, it is common for congressional elections to take the back seat to the presidential race. In the case of Brazil, the contrast between the political debate for legislative races and those for the executive branch (president and governor) are striking.

While we often hear voters and pundits talking about runoff stage possibilities and how “pragmatic” voters might appear in the first round (voting to prevent a candidate they don’t like from reaching the second round, rather than casting a ballot for someone they do like – but who has little chances of winning), we barely talk about who is running for Congress.

A pivotal point to stimulate this discussion is understanding how Brazilian voters choose their members of Congress – and what are the effects of their criteria on how well our presidential system works. Research from the survey A Cara da Democracia no Brasil (“The face of democracy in Brazil”), carried out by the Democracy and Communication democratization Institute, helps us shed light on this issue.

</span></p> <h2>Elections for Congress: What matters to voters?</h2> <p><span style="font-weight: 400;">The researchers conducted 2,500 interviews nationwide, between March 15-22, 2018. The chart below shows what voters look at when picking a candidate. The most frequent answers were: someone who will help [their] own region (31.9 percent), someone who has an honest career (21.7 percent), and someone with ideas similar to [their] ideas (10.3 percent).</span></p> <hr /> <p><img class="alignnone size-large wp-image-9137" src="" alt="How voters choose their members of Congress" width="1024" height="689" srcset=" 1024w, 300w, 768w, 610w, 1200w" sizes="(max-width: 1024px) 100vw, 1024px" /></p> <hr /> <p><span style="font-weight: 400;">As you can see, just a few voters believe that the candidate&#8217;s party should be the primary criterion of evaluation. Only 5.4 percent of voters sought a candidate who was a member of a party with which they sympathize. Meanwhile, only 2 percent say they choose someone of the same party as their presidential candidate.</span></p> <hr /> <p><img class="alignnone size-large wp-image-9138" src="" alt="How voters choose their members of Congress" width="1024" height="732" srcset=" 1024w, 300w, 768w, 610w, 1200w" sizes="(max-width: 1024px) 100vw, 1024px" /></p> <hr /> <p><span style="font-weight: 400;">The second chart shows what is, in voters&#8217; minds, the second-most important gauge for measuring candidates. While the order has changed, the top 3 options remained unaltered. The data reveals that individual aspects of a politician matter more than their party&#8217;s characteristics, which rarely come into play. So what?</span></p> <h2>How our selection criteria affect our democracy</h2> <p><span style="font-weight: 400;">Our findings beg the question: what are the consequences of our rationale of picking candidates on the functioning of our democratic system? The implications go beyond the scope of this article, but we can point out three main problems created by the way Brazilian voters pick their members of Congress.</span></p> <p><span style="font-weight: 400;">First of all, parties (or coalitions, for that matter) should be the first criterion in an open-list electoral system such as Brazil&#8217;s. The country elects its lawmakers through a proportional system. In theory, if a party gets 20 percent of votes for city council or state or National Congress, it should get 20 percent of the seats. But Brazil’s system allows for legislative coalitions, meaning that multiple parties can join forces to form a “super party.”</span></p> <p><span style="font-weight: 400;">If the candidate of choice is not elected, the ballot with his or her name will nevertheless count towards the party as a whole &#8211; thus affecting the number of seats his or her coalition will win. By looking exclusively at a politician&#8217;s career, voters risk helping to elect candidates with profiles that could have little to do with what they were seeking in the first place.</span></p> <p><span style="font-weight: 400;">Even when the candidate </span><i><span style="font-weight: 400;">is</span></i><span style="font-weight: 400;"> elected, voters could get frustrated. If he or she is the only member of his party to pass the electoral threshold, his or her influence will be minimal. One isolated congressman among 513 can&#8217;t pass anything in a house where majority rules.</span></p> <p><span style="font-weight: 400;">Finally, we must remember that the possibilities of success of the new administration rely on the makeup of Congress. In Brazil&#8217;s &#8220;presidential system of coalition,&#8221; </span><span style="font-weight: 400;"><sup>[1]</sup></span><span style="font-weight: 400;"> the sitting president must distribute cabinet positions to have congressional support &#8211; without which it is impossible to govern. In this process of alliances, parties are vital actors with which the Executive branch must negotiate.</span></p> <p><span style="font-weight: 400;">Brazil&#8217;s electoral system was designed so that voters can cast a ballot for a candidate and a party at the same time. It is supposed to represent (a) the party the voter wants to see in Congress and, (b) within the candidates of that party, which politician he or she prefers. But voters didn&#8217;t get the memo.</span></p> <hr /> <p><strong><sup>[1]</sup></strong> <i><span style="font-weight: 400;">Term first coined by political scientist Sergio Abranches to describe how fragmented Brazil&#8217;s political system is. Eleven parties have fewer than ten congressmen. In our political system, governability is only achievable through coalitions. Example: The Workers’ Party – which won the last four presidential elections – won no more than 11.5 percent of the seats in 2014.</span></i><span style="font-weight: 400;">

Rafael Câmara

Câmara is a researcher at the Federal University of Minas Gerais

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