How introducing electronic votes in Brazil saved lives and increased health spending by a third

February 24, 2017

     By Duncan Green     

Just came across a paper which overcame even my scepticism about what often seems excessive hype around Brazil electronic voting machinetechnology’s impact on poverty and human rights. Check out ‘Voting Technology, Political Responsiveness and Infant Health: Evidence from Brazil’ by Princeton’s Thomas Fujiwara. He has stumbled across one of those wonderful natural experiments that allow you to try and pin down the causal impact of a particular change.

In this case it was the gradual introduction of electronic voting (EV) systems to replace hyper-complicated forms that meant that large numbers of Brazilians, in particular those who were poor  and/or illiterate, messed up their voting forms and were effectively disenfranchised. EV makes it much easier to get it right (it reduced spoiled ballots by about 10% of total voter turnout). The experimental bit lies in the gradual introduction of EV, which allowed Fujiwara to use a regression continuity design (me neither) to isolate what happened where EV was and wasn’t present. Its introduction was thus effectively a demonstration of what happens when poor people get to vote. Neat, eh? Here’s the findings:

Brazil electronic voting machine 2‘EV caused a large de facto enfranchisement of less educated voters, which led to the election of more left-wing state legislators, increased public health care spending, utilization (prenatal visits), and infant health (birthweight)…… The estimates indicate that the de facto enfranchisement of approximately a tenth of Brazilian voters increased the share of states’ budgets spent on health care by 3.4 percentage points, raising expenditure by 34% in an eight year period. It also boosted the proportion of uneducated mothers with more than seven prenatal visits by 7 percentage points and lowered the prevalence of low-weight births by 0.5 percentage points (respectively, a 19% and −68% change over sample averages).’

Wow. Electronic voting enfranchises 10% of the population, a previously excluded group that then elects authorities that increase health spending by a third over 8 years. And for someone like me who focuses on poverty and power, rather than technical fixes, the nice part is that in this case technology is improving the working of politics, not bypassing it.