Misael Gomes stood under the hot sun in downtown Curitiba, sweat running down his back as he gathered with hundreds of Partido dos Trabalhadores (Worker’s Party—PT) supporters awaiting President Dilma Rousseff as she made an October 17 campaign stop ahead of this Sunday’s election.
“We’re doing our work,” Gomes said to me, “we’re fighting hard for this.” Rousseff is fighting for her political life in Brazil’s closest election in recent history, and an army of supporters like Gomes is determined to see her reelected to another four-year term. He’s the type of relentless politico who sends several emails a day arguing that opposition candidate Aécio Neves—of the center-right Partido da Social Democracia Brasileira (Brazilian Social Democracy Party—PSDB)—would be disastrous for the social programs expanded under Rousseff and her predecessor, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva.
But this scene in Curitiba would never have happened if this were the United States. Curitiba is the capital of a state that voted overwhelmingly for Neves in the first round of the election on October 5. If Brazil operated under the Electoral College system of the U.S., campaigning anywhere in PSDB-controlled Paraná state would be a waste of resources for either presidential candidate because Neves would already be virtually guaranteed all of the state’s electoral votes.
“Your system is a bit outdated, isn’t it?” Gomes said to me after I’d spent several minutes attempting to explain the U.S. Electoral College and why four U.S. presidents have been elected to the White House despite losing the popular vote.
Increasingly, Americans appear to agree with Gomes. Earlier this year, New York became the 11th state (including the District of Columbia) to approve an initiative called the National Popular Vote Compact that would effectively nullify the Electoral College by automatically awarding all state electoral votes to whichever presidential candidate wins the popular vote. If several more states sign on, the U.S. could be electing its president Brazil-style as soon as 2016. A Gallup Poll conducted last year found that 63 percent of the U.S. population supported abolishing the Electoral College.
For now, however, U.S. presidential candidates are unlikely to waste their time campaigning in Curitiba’s or Paraná’s U.S. equivalents. In the 2012 presidential election, for example, Mitt Romney and Barack Obama made a collective 38 campaign stops in Colorado, 60 in Florida, and 79 in Ohio—all important swing states—while never visiting the solidly Democratic states of Vermont and Delaware or the solidly Republican states of Arizona and Kansas.
Voter turnout also tends to be higher in U.S. swing states than in solidly blue or red states, where the recipient of the Electoral College votes is essentially known beforehand. Nationwide turnout for the 2012 U.S. presidential election was about 60 percent, compared to 80 percent for Brazil’s first round vote.
Voter turnout is also higher in Brazil because voting is mandatory. Failure to cast a ballot can lead to a small fine and difficulty obtaining state documents, which is fodder for Gomes to call all his friends and family this week urging them to avoid trouble with the law and to cast a ballot for the PT. Rousseff has pulled ahead in polls for the first time in weeks, with surveys published October 22 by Ibope and Datafolha giving her an 8-point and 6-point lead, respectively.
“We cannot let the tucanos win,” Gomes said, referring to the PSDB by their long-beaked mascot. “People will change their mind [on their vote]. They tell me they changed their mind…but maybe just to please me.”