Brazil's Presidential Election: That Big White Button

Brazil's Presidential Election: That Big White Button

Why you should care

Protesting against all candidates in the ballot booth is a Brazilian tradition. The number of voters who choose this option could determine the outcome in a close race.

It’s looking good for Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff this Sunday. Over just the past week, her polling numbers have crept up, and she’s now at 40 percent, over 25 percent for Marina Silva, and 20 percent for Aecio Neves. Of course, if most Neves voters go for Silva in a runoff ballot, it starts looking like a contest again. Still, 40 + 25 + 20 doesn’t equal 100.

Allow us to introduce you to the white button, the cop-out vote that gets added to the winner’s tally. It’s something like an intentionally spoiled ballot for Brazilians, who are required by law to vote. In the expected runoff election, the number of people who send a protest by pushing the white button — or intentionally punching in an invalid candidate number — just could be a factor in the outcome.

a man goes to an electronic voting machine on the table to vote

A worker prepares an electronic voting machine at the electoral tribune in Brasilia.

It’s not so easy to beg off your civic duty in Brazil. You could formally abstain by going to the trouble of registering in advance, as 21.5 percent of Brazilians did in the last presidential election. It’s supposed to be for logistical or family reasons. (Hint: Some Brazilians fake it!)

But without that abstention, you can forget about buying a car, renting an apartment, opening a credit card or even traveling abroad without running into a problem. As a result, Brazilians are forced by law to form an opinion on whom they want for their next president … or not. And forcing someone to do something often creates unintended consequences.

Which is why at least 5 percent of Brazilian voters intend to throw their votes away, by either entering an invalid number or pressing the white button, called votando em branco, voting in white.

It’s a “whatever,” vote, a kind fo protest, and exactly how many will choose this option could turn out to be important. When Silva — the dark-horse candidate running on an anti-status-quo platform — entered the race after the death of her running mate, Eduardo Campos, the proportion of polled voters who said they planned a protest vote dropped from 13 percent to 8 percent. Very likely Silva’s protest-candidate image appealed to those voters so dissatisfied as to think of tossing away their ballots.

Voting in Brazil is an efficient process. Want to vote for the incumbent, Rousseff? Punch in 13 on your keypad. Silva, 40. Neves, 45. The process is so simple that Brazilian voters on average spend just 1 minute and 14 seconds voting. Of course, it’s even faster just to hit the button that says “BRANCO,” or “WHITE.” In that moment at the voting station, where your country has forced you to go, it’s the voters’ way of saying “f*** it.”

And in a close race, such as one that goes to a runoff, as this one is predicted to, ironically, it’s the nonchoosers who may decide it all, since a white-button vote is likely to amount to a vote for the status quo. Marina Silva’s challenge: to persuade those lazy protesters to keep their fingers off that tempting white button.

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