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Ahead of Brazil's presidential election, officials say the voting system is sound

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Brazilians are facing a stark choice in this Sunday's election. Current president, Jair Bolsonaro, a far-right nationalist, is trailing in the polls behind one of Latin America's most revered leftists. We're talking about Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva. Bolsonaro insists the only way he will lose is by fraud. But as NPR's Carrie Kahn reports, Brazil's electoral officials say their system is sound.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Speaking Portuguese)

CARRIE KAHN, BYLINE: In a large warehouse near downtown Rio de Janeiro, a local official speaks to election workers hovered over Brazil's electronic voting machines.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Speaking Portuguese).

KAHN: "Fire 'em up," he tells the workers, who check for accuracy and tampering. Brazil has used voting machines since 1996 without major incidents, says Michel Kovacs, Rio's Chief Technology Officer.

MICHEL KOVACS: I feel comfortable that it's totally safe, totally reliable, totally transparent.

(SOUNDBITE OF MACHINE BEEPING)

KAHN: Running a quick test, he says all results are sent via police escort to tallying stations, and the machines are never connected to the internet to prevent hacking. Despite the safeguards, he says, mistrust of the system is at an all-time high.

KOVACS: I feel very bad.

KAHN: Much of that skepticism is fueled by President Jair Bolsonaro. The brash former army captain repeats baseless fraud conspiracies, much like his political ally Donald Trump. Bolsonaro also fondly recalls Brazil's dictatorship, decries gay rights, and has overseen unprecedented destruction of the Amazon.

He rides his motorcycle around the country, greeting supporters who he's told to prepare for war if he loses - a scary scenario, given his weakening of gun laws here. In a recent interview with RecordTV, Bolsonaro attacked judges running Brazil's elections.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRESIDENT JAIR BOLSONARO: (Speaking Portuguese).

KAHN: "The ones in charge are the same ones that let Lula out of jail and allowed him to run," he said.

Lula is former President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva. He spent more than a year in jail on corruption charges that were later annulled.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

LUIZ INACIO LULA DA SILVA: (Speaking Portuguese).

KAHN: At a rally at one of Rio's famous samba schools, da Silva, now 76, pledged to spend more on the poor. During his presidency, more than 20 million people rose out of poverty.

UNIDENTIFIED RALLYGOERS: (Speaking Portuguese).

KAHN: But when pressed why they backed da Silva again, many supporters say getting rid of Bolsonaro is most important, like 66-year-old Edson Gonzalves Silva.

EDSON GONZALVES SILVA: (Speaking Portuguese).

KAHN: "Look, more than 600,000 people died of COVID in Brazil, and Bolsonaro didn't go to a single funeral. But he just went to the Queen of England's burial," he says. He's sick of Bolsonaro's antics.

If polls are right, da Silva could make a stunning political comeback and win Sunday outright, avoiding a runoff. But rejection in this election goes both ways. Street performer Roberson Martins de Carvalho says he can't stand da Silva.

ROBERSON MARTINS DE CARVALHO: (Speaking Portuguese).

KAHN: Da Silva is a hypocrite, he says, with ties to authoritarian leaders in Nicaragua and Venezuela, repeating Bolsonaro's attempts to peg da Silva as a communist.

Back at the polling warehouse, poll officials cart more voting machines out for testing. Sixty-six-year-old worker Sandra Braconnot says despite the heated rhetoric, democracy is safe in Brazil.

SANDRA BRACONNOT: (Speaking Portuguese).

KAHN: "The machines are super, fantastic. I'm so impressed how well they work and will work on election day," she says.

Carrie Kahn, NPR News, Rio de Janeiro. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Carrie Kahn is NPR's International Correspondent based in Mexico City, Mexico. She covers Mexico, the Caribbean, and Central America. Kahn's reports can be heard on NPR's award-winning news programs including All Things Considered, Morning Edition and Weekend Edition, and on NPR.org.