Making the Absent Present

Digital Technology and Representation of Minority Groups in Brazilian Politics

by Thamy Pogrebinschi and Iná Chaves

When it is not deployed to misinform, distort the truth, or spread fake news, may the internet improve the political representation of minority groups? Prompted by this question, we (Thamy Pogrebinschi, WZB Berlin, and Iná Chaves, OAS) analyzed electoral campaigns in the Brazilian municipal elections in 2020 and conducted interviews with candidates and elected representatives. We found that digital technologies ease the breaking down of communicative barriers in electoral campaigns and expand the participatory dimension of elected office. Our conclusions point that digitalization could enable the expansion of descriptive representation and its conversion into a more responsive form of substantive representation.

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The idea of representation carries with it a paradox: the act of representing implies giving presence to someone absent. Being represented means being made present when you are not actually present. In the famous words of Hanna Pitkin: “representation means the making present of something which is nevertheless not literally present” (1967: 144).

This paradox inherent in the concept of representation lies at the core of some of the main controversies surrounding the practice of political representation. “Substantive representation” focuses on the interests of those who are represented and aims to reflect their ideological positions. “Descriptive representation” focuses on the specific characteristics of those represented in order to reflect the shared experiences that result from belonging to certain groups. 

While substantive representation grants the representative greater freedom, descriptive representation seeks to ensure greater equality for the represented. For this reason, it has often been associated with an ideal of empowerment of minorities and translated into the defense of a “politics of presence” (Philipps, 1998), that is, in the idea that groups constituted by gender, race, and ethnic identity should be represented by people from these same groups. 

While minority groups in spaces of power are undeniably essential to democracy, this fact alone does not assure that they are effectively represented. For instance, having women representatives who actually represent women and defend their interests is at least as necessary as electing women representatives. It is the sharing of experiences that ensures a more accurate form of representation that is committed to the interests of those represented (Mansbridge, 1999: 629).

The role currently played by digital technologies in electoral campaigns and elected offices may promote a more substantive form of descriptive representation. This could reinforce a politics of presence pursued through quotas, for example. When it is not deployed to misinform, distort the truth or spread fake news, the internet allows people to be substantially represented by others with whom they digitally share experiences when they are campaigning and in office. 

In this article, we argue that digital technologies a) ease the breaking down of communicative barriers in electoral campaigns, and b) expand the participatory dimension of elected office, thereby c) enabling the expansion of descriptive representation and d) its conversion into a more responsive form of substantive representation.

We claim that digital technology has the potential to give presence to women, black people, indigenous peoples, LGBT+ people, and other groups historically absent from electoral competition and political institutions. By mitigating the representation paradox, allowing absent groups to become present, digital technology can make representation more responsive and democratic. This seems the more relevant in countries strongly affected by social inequality and structural racism, which have historically translated into harsh political exclusion, as is Brazil’s case.

To address this issue, we analyzed electoral campaigns in the Brazilian municipal elections in 2020. We conducted interviews with managers of electoral campaigns, candidates, and elected representatives that belong to minority groups.

The Brazilian Local Elections in 2020

In the 2020 elections, there was a significant increase in black, female, transsexual, and indigenous candidates in Brazil. For the first time in the country’s history, there were more black candidates (49.9%) than white ones. Female candidates increased slightly, reaching 33.4% of the total. This is a rather low percentage, considering that women comprise 52.5% of the Brazilian electorate. Trans candidacies increased by 226% compared to previous local elections. Indigenous candidacies, in turn, increased by 27% in the same period. In addition, all of these groups tended to be more represented in collective candidacies, which jumped from 13 in 2016 to 257 in 2020. [1]

Collective candidacies and mandates are increasingly frequent in Brazil and Latin America. The terms refer to highly diverse and often supra-partisan groups of people who run together for office. Although formally, only one person can be elected, decisions are taken collectively by the “co-representatives.” 

The significant increase in candidacies from minority groups was grounded in a series of laws and judicial decisions that granted quotas, campaign funds, and electoral advertising time on radio and television for women and black people. For now, the rising candidacies from minority groups have not translated into a proportionate increase in the number of elected representatives belonging to these groups. Compared with the 2016 election, there were 2.5% more women elected councilors and 3% more black women elected as mayors. Nevertheless, the number of black women elected councilors increased by 23%, four times more trans people were elected, and 28% more indigenous were elected mayors and councilors.

Technology tools make the candidacies more feasible for people and groups historically absent from electoral competition. They boost electoral runs by removing communicative barriers and increasing citizen participation in terms of office. Digital technologies may thus expand the representation of discourses and policy issues traditionally absent from the public policy agenda.

Digital technology enables, among other things: a) access to information on electoral rules and party functioning; b) access to the information and resources necessary to plan and execute campaigns; c) reduction of campaign costs (for example, by reducing travel and the production and distribution of promotional material); d) expansion of the forms of campaign financing, such as collective financing through crowdfunding platforms; e) enlarging of the candidates’ personal and institutional networks and, consequently, the number of supporters; and f) increase of transparency and monitoring of campaigns.

However, digital technologies do not ensure that these candidates will be successful. Despite enjoying increased visibility, reduced campaign costs, and better communication with their electoral bases, candidates still depend greatly on other variables linked to the electoral system and political parties, such as the resources (not just financial) that the respective parties allocate to each candidate.

Digital technologies do improve the presence required by political representation. Candidacies that would otherwise not be registered become feasible and visible due to the removal of communicative barriers. Digital technologies provide information and communication benefits and therefore enables inclusion. In addition, terms in office become more substantially representative when digital technologies facilitate the sharing of experiences through direct citizen engagement. In these cases, digital technology provides gains in terms of participation and representativeness, leading to greater responsiveness. Below, we discuss these two dynamics in more depth.

Information + Communication = Inclusion

The internet contributes to diversifying the public debate, including minority groups that have historically marginalized decision-making spaces. As one interviewee said – a black candidate for the city council in a large Brazilian city – black campaigns “are made unfeasible, besides being made invisible.” According to him, this problem may be somewhat reduced by digital technologies since they make them more visible and allow them to counteract the “negative visibility” they receive from the mainstream press. Digital technologies would encourage minority people to run for office.

Digital platforms are more accessible than any traditional means of communication. They are designed as more democratic and horizontal forums for debate, allowing more people to speak out and be listened to. The internet opens spaces for direct communication between candidates and voters, and it expands diversity by giving voice to people who have never been heard.

All interviewed candidates stated the crucial role of digital technologies in their election campaigns. Running in politics is expensive and requires infrastructure. The new technological tools mitigate these demands since they enable the organization of low-cost, accessible digital networks, which depend less and less on printing promotional material, travel logistics, and physical spaces to carry out the campaign. Furthermore, they provide tools that facilitate communication and fundraising, such as crowdfunding platforms.

Also, political campaigns demand time. However, digital technologies disrupt physical and temporal barriers to participation: they allow the same person to be present at several places and times simultaneously. One of our interviewees, an indigenous candidate in a collective candidacy, reported that she used WhatsApp extensively to communicate with indigenous villages that she was unable to visit during her campaign. In her view, this has greatly optimized her campaigning time.

This is a crucial factor because, after all, candidates have limited campaigning time, especially when they do not have structural party support, as is the case with most candidacies from minority groups. An elected councilwoman reported that, during a previous campaign running for state deputy, she obtained half of her vote in cities that, due to lack of resources, she did not have the opportunity to visit but managed to carry out a successful campaign on social networks.

Participation + Representativity = Responsiveness

The expansion of political subjects brings about a broadening of policy issues. Digital tools increase the scope of formerly marginal agendas and enable a more accurate representation of the plurality of the electorate. The inclusion of new discourses provides for higher-quality representation, bringing to the fore issues shared by large segments of the population – groups that previously did not have the means to have a voice in the public debate.

Participating in political life outside of elections poses a complex challenge, but the internet generates a variety of accessible channels, tools, and platforms for cooperation. Many people who would not have the ability to participate otherwise can send e-mails to their representatives, monitor and comment on their legislative activities, dialogue directly with them, and co-formulated legislative proposals.

Among our interviewees, two elected women reported that digital technologies are essential to making their terms in office more participatory, allowing them to represent their voters better. One of them created an online platform where citizens can make proposals and evaluate drafts bill, register complaints, and demand information. The other one said that she holds public hearings, meetings with civil society, and plenary sessions online, where she can hear suggestions for legislative proposals as a way of sharing experiences with the women she represents. By making citizen engagement more accessible, digital environments enhance the perception of belonging. The feeling of connection with politics is a powerful resource for mobilization and engagement. The simplicity of access to online tools allows citizens to feel that they are seen and heard and that their participation leads to concrete actions and results. The fact that previous and future voters can use digital means to monitor their activities closely also motivate candidates and elected representatives to respond to their demands and enhance the impact of their actions.

Limitations and Potential

Acknowledging the limitations of digital tools is as important as recognizing their potential. Although Brazil is one of the countries with the largest number of connected people in the world, one-third of the population does not have access to the internet. Internet access still reproduces the dynamics of social inequality.

The challenge remains to translate digital mobilization into the physical world. Digital activism has practical limits, and the likes, shares, and number of followers may not be reflected, at least not with the same intensity, in face-to-face engagement. 

Despite the multiplicity of channels and digital tools, politics still operates according to the logic of institutional rigidity. It is still costly to launch a candidacy, and the parties uphold their internal logic. There is a critical gap between the timing of technology development and the timing of the institutional change. Yet, the potential of digital technology to include persons, narratives, and issues that were excluded from public debate is enormous. The internet brings society closer to decision-making processes, democratizes discussions, and mitigates institutional barriers. When opening spaces for new political subjects and policy issues, it brings about a meaningful political change.

Thamy Pogrebinschi is a researcher at the Department of Democracy and Democratization at the WZB Berlin, where she coordinates the project LATINNO (Innovations for Democracy in Latin America)

© David Ausserhofer

Iná Chaves is a consultant at the Department of Electoral Observation and Cooperation of the Organization of American States in Washington D.C.

© Iná Chaves

[1] Collective candidacies and mandates are increasingly frequent in Brazil and Latin America. The terms refer to highly diverse and often supra-partisan groups of people who run together for office. Although formally, only one person can be elected, decisions are taken collectively by the “co-representatives.” 

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