The CDU held a fully digital party conference for the first time in January 2021. The new CDU leader, Armin Laschet, was elected by 1,001 delegates using the POLYAS Live Voting. How the German party managed to prepare its party congress within 5 weeks and the situations it had to deal with were discussed in the interview with Dr. Stefan Hennewig, the national managing director of the CDU.
Dr. Hennewig, thank you very much for giving us an insight into your work and to share your perspective on Germany’s first digital national party conference. How did you come to the decision to implement the CDU party congress digitally and to hold the election online? What alternatives did you consider?
In the end and after weighing up all the arguments, we decided in favor of a historic first, a purely digital version of the party conference, not least due to the development of the corona pandemic. And I think we can say: It was the right decision. The digital implementation set new standards.
What was the legal basis of the election? Was it necessary to adjust the electoral regulations? What hurdles had to be taken?
The legal basis for digital voting in Germany was the Covid-19 law. The law enables “digital pre-voting”, although it also stipulates that a legally binding final vote has to be carried out either by ballot box or postal vote. However, from a technical and organizational point of view, we wanted voting to be completely digital while also fulfilling the electoral principles for public elections as laid down in the constitution.
Unfortunately, in the run-up to the event we did not succeed with our political demand that legally compliant, purely digital election party conferences should be an option without a subsequent postal voting.
How did you prepare for the online voting? What kind of scenarios did you account for?
We first checked the legal options and potential hurdles. Along with the legal aspects, the focus was also on feasibility: So the question was: How do we enable our 1,001 delegates between the ages of 20 and 88 to participate in the party conference without any problems? From the start we relied on offering our delegates a wide range of information, including step-by-step instructions, video tutorials, a service hotline and, last but not least, three test runs with the delegates in the run-up to the CDU party conference. The test runs in particular were time well spent.
A further risk was the potential overload of our server capacities, and also cyber attacks. On the technology front, we ended up using three systems in parallel: Our website cdu.de for the stream, the digital plenary hall for the voting and speeches from the delegates, as well as POLYAS for the voting. These systems all ran on different servers and our design even allowed for redundant line infrastructure from the studio. So although we had backups in place for the elections, luckily we didn’t need them.
How did the election day go, and which of the planned scenarios actually occurred?
The digital ballots were particularly tense, as this type of implementation was a risk and we were very much aware of the public pressure. In fact, there were massive DDoS attacks on the Friday and Saturday, especially during the voting. Our cdu.de website as a “sacrificial system” was sometimes difficult to access, but as described the three systems were separated from one another, and the course of the party conference itself was never endangered.
How did you experience working with POLYAS?
Both in the run-up to and during the party conference, the collaboration was pleasant and very professional.
Which elements of the digital CDU party conference do you want to keep for future meetings, and why?
Future party conferences will no longer be held offline only. Going forward, we will make greater use of hybrid formats so that everyone can take part and, at the same time, this will promote “digital thinking” at party conferences. However, legal regulations will have to be adapted to allow for this. The party conference in January decided that the CDU should campaign for precisely this. And if we succeed, then it will certainly not be the last digital party conference to be held by the CDU in Germany.