PH poses challenge to poll technology leader
Cesar Flores unabashedly proclaims that the company he represents in the Philippines—Venezuela-founded and now UK-based Smartmatic—is the best in the world when it comes to providing the technology for the conduct of elections.
But he does not rely solely on qualitative descriptions. When making his pitch about the firm, he does so with an avalanche of facts and figures to back up his claim.
“I’ve always told the media here, but no one wants to reflect [on it]: We have been the largest supplier of election technology in the world for the last 10 years,” he says matter of factly.
Lucrative but messy
Bar none, Smartmatic leads the global roster of firms involved in the lucrative but often messy and politically charged industry of helping the democratic process along through IT.
Flores says his firm is the largest in terms of revenues, international footprint and number of voting machines manufactured and sold in the last decade.
And the numbers are impressive.
“We have counted over two billion votes from elections around the world,” he says (2.3 billion votes, to be exact, according to the company’s literature). “Each one needs to be counted properly. You cannot lose a single vote.”
The company has also produced over 150,000 voting machines of various designs—the diverse range of election processes worldwide—since it was founded in 2000. These machines include optical counting machines like what Smartmatic used for the 2010 and 2013 elections in the Philippines, up to fully automated touchscreen consoles like what they use in Venezuela.
“On top of that, we’ve also sold over 50,000 biometric devices that are used for voter verification all over the world,” he says.
And without hesitation, Flores points out that the Spanish-Filipino firm that had competed against Smartmatic for the latest contract awarded by the Commission on Elections—Indra Sistemas—has built less than 500 voting machines.
“And that’s already a stretch. I think it’s below 200 but let’s give them that—500 machines,” he adds.
When it comes to balance sheet size, Flores is even prouder of his firm.
“Indra says they are a $3-billion company. But when it comes to elections, they are five to six times smaller than we are,” he points out.
And the global industry for conducting elections through technology is a small but competitive community.
There are two US-based firms with an international presence, namely ES&S and Dominion Voting Systems (which works with Smartmatic in the Philippines), Spanish firms Indra and Citel, and Smartmatic. There are also firms from Korea and India.
“Basically, that’s it. Those are the suppliers out there,” he adds.
It is understandable that the number of industry players are small, given the often contentious, politically charged and often outright stressful situations they find themselves in when trying to win contracts from governments.
But the revenue numbers are jaw-dropping—enough to make one understand why these firms are where they are.
“Our revenues from elections is an average of $300 million a year,” Flores says. “When you look at Indra, their revenues during the last 10 years must be somewhere around $50 million annually, on average.”
And while Smartmatic has various technology solutions sold to governments worldwide—including an integrated emergency response system for Venezuela’s capital, Caracas—revenues from election-related activities account for 90 percent of the firm’s sales.
“Venezuela has one of our most famous systems because that’s where we started,” Flores says. “This is important in the sense that it’s a very polarized electoral system.”
The beauty of having operated in such a polarized political environment—not too different from what the Philippines experiences—is that the conduct of elections is closely scrutinized by the international community.
And as far as Smartmatic is concerned, it has received accolades from the United Nations, the Carter Centre of former US President Jimmy Carter and the European Union.
These groups send, on average, more than 500 observers to every elections conducted in the country where Smartmatic has its roots.
“That has given us a lot of credibility in the international community,” Flores says. “The EU has mentioned in the past that this is the best electronic system they have seen in the world.”
‘The best in the world’
In fact, he points out that a deputy of the Swiss parliament has cited Smartmatic’s system as having a level of technology that surpasses that of the European Union.
“The actual report of the EU says that the system we have developed is probably the most advanced in the world today,” Flores says. “[Former US President Jimmy] Carter says that in 92 elections they have monitored, this is the best election system in the world.”
But Flores is the first to admit that the Philippines is the most challenging case that he has faced in his 12 years with Smartmatic.
“Yes, definitely, the Philippines,” he says, “not only because of the pressure and the expectations on the project, but also because we had a very short timeframe in 2010.”
But Smartmatic’s local boss is unfazed as the country approaches another election cycle.
Over the next few months, going into 2016, Smartmatic will face more scrutiny—perhaps, most of all, in the court of public opinion. But he has no fear.
“We are the best in the business,” he says. “And our systems are the most audited in the world.”