The year 2020 will linger in our memories for a long time to come. Challenges were managed, hurdles were overcome and stress limits were tested. We employees at POLYAS have also learned a lot and have outgrown ourselves—despite working from home. But how did our managing director and POLYAS founder Kai Reinhard experience this year? How does he feel about this crazy year? How does he feel about developments at POYLAS? And just how did the whole story get started? We put these questions to him and took a journey with him into the past.
Kai, please remind us of the history of POLYAS. What exactly does love have to do with it?
I like to say that we have love to thank for POLYAS. Actually it’s a beautiful love story. One of my fellow students and later co-founder of POLYAS went to Finland in 1995 to do a semester abroad and fell in love with a Finnish girl. That year saw the presidential election take place in Finland, and the topic of democracy was discussed in schools. And that’s where the idea was born: Students should also be able to take part in elections just like eligible voters. And so we six students got together to build a program which 30,000 students could use to vote online. Back then, Finland was already a step ahead of us. In Germany hardly anybody had the Internet, while in 1995 almost half of the schools in Finland had it already. And so it came about that 30,000 students were able to vote online using our software. The remaining 30,000 not yet connected to the network voted by fax machine instead.
What did people say or think back then when you came up with this idea?
Initially nobody took any notice of it at all. Even we as founders didn’t even think that it could become such a big thing. At the time we were just doing the project for the schools. It was even repeated in Finland in 1999. This year, all 60,000 students were able to take part by voting online. No more fax machines were required. At the time, nobody would have imagined what could come of it.
So what happened with POLYAS next?
In 1999/2000 there was a research group “Wahl” (Election) with a professor of social science. We told him we had already conducted an online election and that we could work together. However, nothing came of that collaboration. But we did realize at that moment what a major topic online elections could be. Finally we got to know Gerald Wolff, who was involved in the junior elections in Germany. So it came about that in 2001 we were able to hold an online election with 1,000 schools. More and more people became aware of us as a result. In 2003 the Initiative D21 approached us and wanted to work with us on their board elections. As our first big election, it gave us even more exposure.
What was your personal breakthrough in 2020?
In 2020 we further improved the POLYAS Online Voting Systems CORE 2.2.3 and CORE 3.0.
If an online election and the digital voting are conducted correctly, all votes can be verified both by voters and election officials. However, we have to make a distinction between two types of verification: universal verification and individual verification. Universal verification means that the election officer is able to check that the election was processed and counted correctly. With individual verification, eligible voters can see whether their vote landed unchanged in the ballot box and then counted correctly. Both methods preserve voting secrecy.
The Self-Service is also a very important product introduced that year. At the beginning of the year we noticed the increasing interest in online voting, and so we quickly launched our new product, which for me was a joy to see. Self-Service helps companies and other organizations to organize their elections by themselves, without help from POLYAS. For Live Voting, too, CORE 3.0 is now a standard. Live Voting is especially interesting for organizations, parties, etc., as they use it at their digital meetings.
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What was your personal highlight of the year?
The team, most certainly. Each year, the spirit develops a little more. This is also thanks to the new employees who have settled in so quickly. That is our culture too. We want happy employees, we value each individual, and we are also happy about anyone who supports the team with good and unique ideas. Even though working from home means that we can only see each other through Teams, I still get the feeling that we are working even closer together. The feeling of being able to move something together, of creating and building something is so important to us, and of course to me as the managing director and founder. The fact that we now have multiple locations makes it all the more special that we are such a great team, even at long distance. I hope that every employee feels that way.
POLYAS safeguards all voting principles. As a founder, how do you deal with criticism of the software?
It’s true that some students have their doubts and are still not sure whether they want to vote with us. Personally, I also think it’s a good thing that the students question everything—that’s how I was. I too doubted and questioned everything. But of course our software safeguards every voting principle. At the end of the day, it was the critics who gave us forward momentum. With every court judgment that was in our favor, trust continued to grow. What we want to achieve with POLYAS is for everyone in the world to be able to vote, no matter where or when. In the meantime, more and more universities, companies and political parties are approaching us each day, and they are choosing POLYAS. For online voting. For the future.
Would you have thought 20 years ago that POLYAS would one day be so successful?
We always had great ideas, and even back then we wanted our software to be used all around the world—we knew it could be something big. 10 to 15 years ago I was so optimistic, I thought things would move faster. But three years ago I lost all optimism because I saw that the topic was having a hard time in public. It was clear to me that it would be accepted at some point and become possible everywhere, but at the time I could not have imaged how long it would take. It is also clear that the general election in Germany will one day be held online. The question is not if or how, but when. With POLYAS, we were 20 to 25 years too early. Online voting has been our passion for 25 years, but it took a pandemic in 2020 for it to become a major topic, also in politics.
When you look back on 2020, what comes to mind?
Whichever way you look at it, the corona virus and the pandemic brought a significant upturn for us. People started noticing us. Despite the pandemic and contact restrictions, companies, political parties, universities and many other organizations want to conduct their elections online and that’s how they came across us. Many companies have become more digital this year—the watchword being “home office”—and many have gone digital when it comes to elections. Postal voting was originally intended to be a stop-gap exception when voters are sick, have to work or cannot be on location. When it comes to postal voting, we have to be clear that anonymity is based on trust. Voters must have confidence in everyone who handles their letter: The postman, the post office, and election officials who open it. Another argument against postal voting is that votes get lost. Up to three percent of votes can go missing. When electing a party leader, for example, the difference this makes could be decisive. With our electoral system, no votes are lost. The anonymity of the voters is preserved. All of the data is secured and cannot be viewed. This year, more companies and other organizations have chosen to conduct their elections online. People are now more mobile and, due to the corona virus, there are no in-person events. All that makes me think that, in future, many more events and elections will take place online.
Where do you see POLYAS in the next few years? What are the goals ahead?
In the coming year we want to improve scalability. We want to promote Self-Service elections and push Live Voting. I also assume that more parties and even the German parliament will decide to hold elections online. After all, we cannot prioritize postal votes over online elections. That would be senseless, because there is simply too much risk of letters being lost or of breaches to voting secrecy. I am assuming—and I am not just saying this as the founder of POLYAS—that we will see online elections everywhere within ten years and that there will be an end to postal voting. Online voting will replace postal voting everywhere. That is our goal. Because we want everyone to be able to hold secure elections.
I see huge opportunities for countries that have difficulties with democratic elections because they are so sparsely populated. For example in Africa, many people have a smartphone or a satellite phone, but no way of walking long distances to vote. It would be amazing for them to be able to vote online. We can take secure voting anywhere, also in terms of cost. We can create more democracy. We can achieve more participation. Our goal for the next few years is to take online elections to the global south at a minimum cost. Voting should be an option for everyone. All over the world.