INTERVIEW: Smartmatic’s Robert Cook

Although electronic voting is still seen by some as a thing of the future, there are experts in the field with decade’s worth of experience under their belt. This is the case of Robert Cook, Global Administration Sales Operations VP for Smartmatic.

For the last 38 years, Mr. Cook has been involved in the adoption of technology in the US, Mexico, Brazil, Venezuela, the Philippines and many other countries that today lead the trend towards election automation.

Few other people have a similar understanding of what it takes to automate an election, where we stand today in terms of technology adoption and where we are heading to. “During my career I’ve seen a growing interest in automation,” says Cook. ‘Our industry is in a very special situation as governments and citizens are avidly looking for better ways to channel their dialogue.”

Peter O’Neill: FindBiometrics (FB): What are some of the challenges of deploying technology in an election?

Robert Cook, Global Administration Sales Operations VP, Smartmatic: Elections are mission critical projects. Any minor problem can jeopardize not only an election, but the stability of an entire country.

In spite of being technology enthusiasts, we understand that technology alone is not enough to carry a successful election. You need to couple cutting-edge technology with services and good processes in order to ensure the election runs smoothly.

This is why we generally provide our customers with software to monitor and control the logistics and our unique project management methodology. We base our methods on those from the Project Management Institute (PMI), and we’ve refined them based on our experience of delivering successful elections.

FB: Can you please tell us about a recent deployment?

Smartmatic: This year we helped conduct the world’s largest ever electronic counting exercise. On May 9, approximately 44 million Filipinos headed to the polls for the national and local elections. To help count votes and streamline the processing of results, we configured 92,509 of our optical scanners that were distributed across 36,805 polling centers.

Conducting elections in the Philippines is particularly complex as the nation is an archipelago comprising over 7,100 islands. The logistics are simply daunting.

However, in spite the challenge, we can say that the deployment was a complete success. The elections were peaceful and orderly. Results were timely processed, proclamation of winners started on Election Night and were completed in record time. The Philippine Stock Exchange and the Peso rose considerably, and the international community praised the election.

FB: If you had to pick one unique characteristic about Smartmatic, what would it be?

Smartmatic: Auditability of election processes and election results enhances transparency and increases trust in the outcome. For that reason we made it a defining feature of our technology.

Since our first election, we’ve encouraged our clients to involve other stakeholders in reviewing the source code running our systems. Our most recent project, which was the 2016 Philippine General Elections, is a perfect example. The source code was audited for 7 months prior to the election by authorities, experts and party representatives and was also certified by an independent US-based company. In addition, each voter had a chance to validate that their vote was registered correctly. A random manual audit was carried out after the election to contrast against the electronic count.

FB: Has this been a good year for your company?

Smartmatic: This has been an excellent year for Smartmatic. In February we helped Uganda by providing 32,000 biometric devices to authenticate the registered voters who attended the 28,010 polling stations across the nation.

In March, we provided our Online voting solution to the Republican Party of Utah. Voters from over 45 countries voiced their opinion. Online turnout reached 90 percent. The voting session lasted an average of 73 seconds.  

In May, conducted the largest automated vote counting exercise in history—the deployment I mentioned earlier. And in June we helped LA County officials to streamline and expedite election reports during the California Primary Presidential Elections.

In half a year we’ve provided a wide range of election solutions: biometric authentication, online voting, electronic counting and electronic tallying. This speaks volumes of our capacity to help election management bodies improve any stage of the election cycle.

FB: You recently released research that uncovers voter concerns about current voting procedures and technologies. Please tell us about this finding.

Smartmatic: We surveyed 1,000 registered U.S. voters nationwide. The strong majority (81 percent) of all respondents felt changes needed to be made to the voter experience and voting system. The research revealed that a majority view the current voting system as inefficient and say the current system discourages Americans from voting.

The research invites us to work together with election commissions to modernize the electoral process. It is a clear call to action and a great input for us as we continue developing a new generation of election solutions.

FB: What is next for Smartmatic?

Smartmatic: Our plan is simple, to continue growing. Since we started in this business over a decade ago, we have seen a positive shift towards automation. Today, election management bodies around the world recognize the benefits technology has to offer to improve election administration.

In the other hand, people in general are demanding better services from their governments and see technology as an enabler. We believe we are in the right place at the right moment.