Voting in Portugal

What’s it like going from a system of government where you vote for a candidate to a system where you vote for a political party? Your correspondent reports.

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Portugal election
On March 10, 2024, Portugal held elections for the national legislature, the Assembleia da República, otherwise known as parliament.  This is the first election that I have been able to participate in since becoming a Portuguese citizen, and I was excited to find out what it was like to vote in a parliamentary system. (I don’t have a lot of hobbies.) Basically, it’s pretty similar to a presidential system, which is what we have in the United States, but there are some interesting differences.  Principal among these is the fact that I didn’t get an “I voted” sticker to wear and virtue signal for the rest of the day, which was disappointing.
In any event, I’m going to talk about some of my observations on voting in Portugal, but before I do, let’s start with a quick and dirty on how the Portuguese government is structured.  (If you don’t care about how the Portuguese government is structured, click here to bypass this part.)
Technically, Portugal is a “unitary multi-party semi-presidential representative democratic republic.” That’s a mouthful. Here’s the simple version.
In Portugal, there’s only one branch in the legislature, so not a Senate and a House (unitary).  Multiple parties run in elections and parties win seats in the legislature depending upon the number of votes they get; then, either the party with the most votes controls the government or a coalition of parties controls it (multi-party). There is a president and a prime minster (semi-presidential).  And citizens vote for representatives to represent their wishes in government rather than citizens doing the governing directly for themselves (representative democratic republic, similar to most countries we refer to as “democracies”).  
OK! So, what does this all mean in practice?
First, voters elect the president directly, however, as a semi-presidential system, the Portuguese president shares power with the prime minister and has more of a symbolic role, rather than making governing decisions on a day-to-day basis like a US president.  In Portugal, that’s the responsibility of the prime minister.  The current Portuguese president is Marcelo Rebelo de Sousa.  “Marcelo” as he’s known here is a frequent swimmer, often pictured in the water during vacations, and a couple of years ago he even helped rescue some people whose canoe overturned.  When he was 71.
Marcelo swimming
Marcelo: A person with hobbies. Image source: Expresso.
What about the prime minister?  The president appoints the prime minister, but it’s usually someone from the party that got the most votes.
Second, in elections to the Assembleia da República – these elections are called the legislativas in Portugal – voters select a political party, and not an individual candidate who’s a member of a political party like we do in the United States.  Prior to elections, each party puts together a list of candidates that needs to be approved by an election commission.  Depending upon how many votes the party gets, it’s awarded a corresponding number of seats in parliament and those seats are filled by the candidates on the list. 
There are 230 seats total in the Assembleia.  So, if one party wins 100 seats, and their list includes 230 potential candidates, only the first 100 go to parliament.  The first person on the list is usually (but not always) the head of the party and their picture is plastered on billboards all over the country during election season. And occasionally vandalized.
Image source: O Minho
Portugal has 22 electoral districts: 18 distritos on the continent, one for Madeira, one for the Azores, one for Portuguese living abroad in the European Union, and one for Portuguese living abroad outside the European Union.  The distritos have existed since 1975 and serve multiple administrative functions, so they’re not subject to constant gerrymandering for the advantage of a particular political party, as in other countries. (‘Merika!) However, the number of deputados or members of parliament can change depending upon any changes in the population within a particular distrito
Screen Shot 2024 03 11 at 4.47.14 PM
Map of Portugal divided by distritos with the number of deputados for each. Source: Público.
With that out of the way, here are the main differences between voting in Portugal and voting in the United States.

Voter Registration Is Automatic

Those political battles about same-day voter registration in the United States?  Not a thing in Portugal.  Every citizen is automatically registered to vote based on the address associated with their cartão de cidadão, or citizen card, the national ID.
Elections are usually held in public schools or some other public building.  To find out where your polling place is located, you can just text your citizen number to an election database and it will send you right back the address and the secção or section you vote in, which just determines what line you stand in and who’s responsible for counting your vote. 
polling place
Redacted text I received with polling place address. I’m top secret like that.

You Must Show ID But Everyone Has ID

Those political battles about voter ID laws in the United States?  Not a thing in Portugal.  Everyone has a cartão de cidadão, and pretty much all of your personal, medical, banking, residential, and tax data is linked to it.  All citizens must have a cartão de cidadão by law, unless they already have an ID from a prior system.  Babies must have a cartão de cidadão within 20 days of birth.  You need it for practically everything in Portugal, so voter ID laws are not a political football here. 

Voting Day Is Always on a Sunday

Those political battles about whether Americans can get time off of work from their employers in order to vote on a Tuesday? Not a thing in Portugal.  (Noticing a theme here?)  In fact, outside of the United States, weekend voting is pretty typical, the goal being to encourage voting by holding it on a day most people have off.

You Leave Your ID With an Election Official While You Vote

Once you’re at your polling place and in the line for the right secção, you will go up to an election monitor, hand them your cartão de cidadão, and they will read your name to another election monitor who will cross it off a list.  Then, you will be given a ballot, however, your cartão de cidadão stays with the election monitor until after you come back from the voting booth. 
I thought this was an interesting “check” on voting shenanigans.  In the US, I’ve always just showed my ID and received a ballot, but no one verified that I actually voted.  In theory, I could have turned around and walked right back out the door, which would have meant that the ballot box was one vote short of the number of votes that were supposed to be in there.

The Ballot Is Just a Piece of Paper

The boletim de voto, or ballot, is printed on regular ‘ole printer paper.  No card stock, and it even has some wonky margins and weird toner marks.  A few of the party names were capitalized but most weren’t, which, as a former editor, just seers my eyeballs. Unsurprisingly, there were complaints that this made some parties STAND OUT at the expense of others.
Ballot 1
Ballot for 2024 elections

Some Non-Portuguese Can Vote

Only US citizens can vote in national elections.  Residents with green cards may not.
In Portugal, foreign residents from the EU, Brazilians, and citizens of a handful of other countries that have voting agreements with Portugal can vote. However, they have to register themselves to vote because they do not have a cartão de cidadão to be registered automatically.

Voting is a Family Affair

Since voting is held on Sundays when there’s no school, I was a little concerned that I would be the only adult accompanied by children.  As it turned out, we saw many families with kids and the atmosphere was almost boisterous.  (For Portugal.)  No report yet on whether those parents also received a barrage of distracting questions during the actual moment of voting. 
If you’re wondering about the election results in Portugal, you can check out this article on CNN (ungated) or this article in The Economist (gated).
And if you’re an American, make sure you’re registered to vote!
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