A global industry has developed around how votes are cast and counted in elections. This industry serves national and local governments, selling them election-related products like voting machines, voter education guides, and software to tabulate votes and post results.
London-based Smartmatic is one of the industry’s biggest players, offering “a comprehensive portfolio of cutting-edge technology and service to improve every stage of an election,” according to a corporate video.
Los Angeles County has signed a more than a quarter of a billion dollar contract with Smartmatic to create a new, high-tech election system for the county. It has to be up and running for California’s 2020 March presidential primary.
“We have a very intense situation here, but we’re very, very confident that we can get it done,” said Dan Murphy, who leads public engagement for Smartmatic.
At the company’s new Santa Monica offices, about 70 people are working to develop L.A. County’s new voting systems, from designing and testing new high-tech digital terminals that will replace the current paper and ink ballots to writing new software that’s supposed to make election results faster, more accurate and transparent.
No photography is allowed at the offices due to the sensitive nature of the work, but it feels a little like a tech start-up, with lots of young workers intently looking at computer screens and talking in small groups.
Smartmatic got the the L.A. County contract partly because of its global footprint. It sells its systems and expertise from Italy to Brazil, Estonia to the Philippines, and has overseen the counting of billions of ballots.
“They bring to the table experience with the logistics on a scale like what we’re dealing with in L.A. County,” said Dean Logan, L.A. County’s top election official.
But Smartmatic also has an unusual corporate history.
Three young Venezuelan engineers formed the company 20 years ago after seeing a global market for modern election systems.
From the start there were questions about Smartmatic’s connections to the government of the late Venezuelan strongman Hugo Chavez. His government gave the company an early loan and its first contract for election machines in 2004.
The following year, Smartmatic bought a U.S. election software company headquartered in Oakland. But like with Russia today, there were worries about the danger of foreign interests meddling in U.S. elections.
The U.S. Department of Justice started an inquiry into Smartmatic, which only ended after Smartmatic sold the American software company.
More recently, Smartmatic has become a political lighting rod in the Philippines, with some politicians accusing the company of marketing faulty equipment and orchestrating election fraud.
In one video on Youtube, a Filipino politician grills a Smartmatic executive about the company’s products, and yells “Sons of Bitches” in fury at what he claims are glitches in Smartmatic’s machines.
Smartmatic denies any charges of election fraud and says it’s often attacked because it makes elections more honest.
Smartmatic’s Dan Murphy says L.A. County has fully approved Smartmatic’s election track record and given it its stamp of approval.
L.A. County vetted us extensively,” said Murphy. “And the Board of Supervisors voted unanimously to give us this contract. And I don’t think they would have done that if they thought there was no reason to give us this contract.”
Acknowledging concerns over foreign hacking, Murphy added that Smartmatic’s revamp of L.A.’s election systems will be a “Made in the U.S.A.” effort. The election machines will be manufactured in the United States. And “all of the software will be developed in the United States and will never be offshore,” said Murphy.
L.A. County’s Dean Logan said his office will be in full control of new election hardware and software developed by Smartmatic, not the company.
“They’re building the equipment based on our design our blueprints our plans,” said Logan. “And at the end of the day, once that equipment is built and the system exists, it will belong to L.A. County,” he said. “Smartmatic won’t be running our elections.”
Once Smartmatic and L.A. County finish testing the new election system, they’ll need the California Secretary of State’s office to sign off on all changes. That’s expected sometime late next year.
But the real tests comes when voters cast their real world ballots in 2020.