Brazil Can Point the Way to Democracy

Ronaldo Lemos´s weekly column

published in

19 de December de 2021


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The birthplace of participatory budgeting, the country has also innovated by experimenting with quadratic voting

It is a shame that in tough times it is so easy to forget the leading role Brazil has played in the development of state-of-the-art democratic practices.

The country is the birthplace of the participatory budgeting process, that is, the simple and powerful idea that the population of a given territory can be consulted so that they can decide directly on how to prioritize the application of scarce resources. After all, who’s better than the very members of a community to decide what their priorities are?

This procedure emerged in Porto Alegre some 32 years ago and has become a global hit ever since. It is now adopted by numerous countries and regions, including the US, Africa, most European countries, India, China, and Australia. New York City, for example, has a permanent participatory budget committee. This is perhaps the most successful Brazilian institutional model, and as such, it has become an export product (although it is half-forgotten here).

However, democratic experimentation in the country has not ceased. On Friday (17), The Economist published a story about quadratic voting, calling the method “a fairer way to vote.” And guess what country is among the nations experimenting with quadratic voting. Yes, precisely Brazil. Cities like Gramado and João Pessoa have carried out projects using the method.

Quadratic voting was first proposed by Eric Posner, a professor at the University of Chicago, and economist Glen Weyl. It is a voting system that allows a population to better express its preference among multiple alternatives.

Voters are given a set of votes (let’s say, 100) and can allocate those votes among several available options. If the voter has a marked preference for a single option, they can place all their votes on it. However, in doing so, their votes receive a quadratic “discount.”

If 100 votes are allocated to a single option, their proportion changes from 100 to 10. However, if the voter decides to spread their votes among several options by ranking their preferences, the discount decreases considerably and their decision-making power increases inversely.

This procedure allegedly corrects relevant distortions in voting systems and allows for balancing voter preferences and collective decision-making by seeking consensus. For example, the City Council of the city of Gramado, Rio Grande do Sul, has tested the model to outline the voting agenda. According to Professor Daniel, the speaker of the council: “We found it strange at first. But then everyone came to understand the idea, which is to seek consensus and achieve a form of democracy of the future.”

It is worth noting that the democratic experiment in the Brazilian context was organized in partnership with ITS, an institution of which I am a member, together with RadicalxChange, founded by Weyl.

The crisis of democracy is one of the most critical issues of our time. In this scenario, it is important to ponder how the democratic system can evolve to account for the construction of broader consensus, avoiding the current dynamics, that is, the alienation of approximately 50% of voters in elections. At worst, the quadratic voting system seems to be inciting a constructive provocation in this regard.


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