Explaining the “Distritão”

By Edmund Ruge

On August 10, Brazil's Lower House Special Committee for Political Reform approved a major electoral system change.

The approved measure -- a transition to an electoral system known as distritão for the 2018 and 2020 elections -- got written into Proposed Constitutional Amendment (PEC) 77/03, a Workers Party proposal to institute a major public campaign fund and to transition Lower House elections to a Mixed Member Proportional (MMP) electoral system by 2022.

Brazilian media blew up over the announced changes, but I’m not seeing much explanation in English. Let’s break it down.

What does distritão mean?

Distritão is an electoral system known as the “single nontransferable vote,” or SNTV. It’s a simple but rarely used voting system for multi-member elections. Under this system, constituents cast one vote for their selected candidate within their district. Once votes are tallied, the candidates with the most votes in their district occupy the seats allotted to that district.

What elections would the change apply to?

The change in question only applies to elections for federal deputies, state deputies, and councillors. According to the proposal, they’ll keep SNTV in place for the next two election cycles before moving on to MMP in 2022.

How does that differ from the current system?

Brazil’s Lower House currently uses a system known as Open List Proportional Representation. Voters have the option to vote for a candidate OR a party (voto em legenda). They cast a single vote and votes are tallied per party. The parties that clear the electoral quotient (number of total votes divided by number of open seats) are allotted seats and the most-voted candidates within those parties are elected.

For example, imagine 100,000 votes are cast in an election with candidates competing for 10 congressional seats. Any competing party would need at least 10,000 total votes (summing votes for candidates and for the party itself) to elect one of its candidates. If party X gets more than 30,000 votes, it elects its top three most-voted candidates.

SNTV, by contrast, casts votes only for candidates and does not tally votes for parties. There is no electoral quotient. The most voted candidates take the seats.

And the SNTV thing got voted through?

It only got approved in committee. As its part of a Constitutional Amendment, the change will need to pass the House and the Senate before becoming law.

Why are they doing this now?

That’s the big question.

This kind of came out of left field. The PEC in question presented by Vicente Cândido (PT-SP) was partly intended to strengthen political parties by moving to a more closed list system a-la Germany’s MMP. The SNTV move does the opposite.  

Critics agree that the House’s current Open List PR system needs some work, but a transition to SNTV weakens political parties even more.

The main critique of the Open List PR system is known as the “coattails effect” (puxadores de voto) or the “Tiririca effect,” named after the clown currently serving in Brazil’s Lower House. Extremely popular candidates - like Tiririca - gain enough votes to bring several other candidates from their party on board with them. Those candidates may have very few votes in their own right, but ride in on the coattails of the more popular candidate. If parties are joined in a coalition, you could have unpopular candidates from little-known parties sneaking in.

While this is an issue, it may be overblown. Something like 10% of candidates make it through this way.

The SNTV shift solves this problem, but effectively pulls political parties out of the picture as far as voting goes.

This change sounds kind of shifty…

Yes!

The SNTV model got proposed in 2015 too, that time with big support from the now-jailed former Speaker of the House Eduardo Cunha and then Vice President Michel Temer.  Not a team you want behind political reform.  

Brazilian media has been quick to point out that SNTV only exists in four countries -- Afghanistan, Jordan, Vanuatu, and the Pitcairn Islands. Spoiler alert: it’s not working out so well in Afghanistan.

This thing has also seen close to zero public debate. Electoral system change is supposed to be slow and difficult. The fact that Brazil woke up to SNTV passing in committee is startling. Though it’s supposedly just a transitional model for the next two elections, there may be a push to make the change permanent.

It seems like the political elite are trying to save their own skin. Confidence in political institutions is at an all-time low, and Brazilians are clamoring for political renewal. A jump to SNTV would accomplish the opposite, benefiting established and familiar candidates. That's the last thing Brazil needs. 
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Edmund Ruge is Lead Fellow at the Met Society. Follow him on Twitter @edmundruge