For the last 20 years, online-elections have been his passion. Wolfgang Jung, our founder is still passionately pursuing his vision of digitalised democracy. We talked to him about POLYAS’ beginnings, its future and why he thinks Kassel is an under-valued city.
Wolfgang, How did you first come to the topic of Online Elections?
Well, it all began in 1996: at the time I was studying Mathematics and was part of a small group of technology-interested computer scientists. A colleague was in contact with the umbrella organization of the Finnish youth organizations in Helsinki, which was involved in the voting processes of young people aged 16-18.
Their previous solution was to send out hundreds of forms via fax. We thought this was rather outdated and thanks to our experience with internet technology at the time we proposed a web-based solution instead. Finland started bringing online elections to schools very early on and by 1996 there was a coverage among schools of around 75%. In Germany, the project “Schulen ans Nets” (Connect Schools) was started and reached the same coverage in just one year.
How did this first online election go?
The election in Finland was very similar to the German projects that took place little later such as a “Juniorwahl” (Junior Election). We have actually been working with the “U18-Wahl” (Under 18 Election) since 1999. Political engagement with democracy among young people will always remain an important topic. It was also used to gather sentiment among young people in Finland as to who future voters are likely to support.
We developed a scalable solution that involved teachers in the process: each teacher was responsible for the issuing of voting rights. Pupils were then allowed to cast their votes digitally once the relevant teachers granted them the right to vote.
How how did it develop further?
After the success of the election in Finland in 1996, there were a number of other elections that were conducted by Micromata GmbH. The aforementioned junior election brought more attention in Germany – even all the way to the BSI (the Federal Ministry of Information). We have continuously increased the number of elections we hold every year while simultaneously working on getting our election system Certified by the BSI.
POLYAS was founded in 2012. How did this decision come about?
Micromata GmbH had most of its focus on projects surrounding business in the industrial environment. Online elections was really only ever a side project for them. The biggest problem was the amount of time it would actually take for clubs and associations to decide to vote online. There were always Bylaws, laws and statutes that needed amending. This meant that we had to wait a full election cycle before we could actually provide online voting services to these institutions.
These experiences changed the way in which we approached this market. We realised that we could no longer just be a group of computer scientists and cryptographers creating online elections, but rather service providers. We would need to advise customers on all aspects of online voting: from proposals for bylaw changes to election marketing expertise as well as the know-how needed to know how to integrate postal voting into the digital process. The move away from Micromata’s industrial business sector was just the next a logical step.
What are you currently working on at POLYAS?
Currently, I am working on scalability issues. At the moment we are handling as many elections in a day as we used to in a year. This means that we need tools to map the individual aspects of elections, without interfering with any running elections in a smooth manner.
We are also in the process of integrating our new election system. This system allows for better verifiability by the electoral board as well as voters themselves.
What are your biggest challenges regarding online elections?
I guess building trust is the most challenging aspect – we are living in the age of spyware, phishing, Spectre, the NSA and insecure operating systems. However, therein lies our big chance: the revelation that end-devices are no longer secure has allowed the development of systems that can work around the assumption of an insecure computer/tablet/network etc.
The biggest challenge is to convey the underlying mathematics to those who have no expertise in the field.
You live and work in Kassel alongside the rest of the development team. How did that happen and what its advantages?
Micromata is also based in Kassel, so when we decided to found POLYAS, our workforce was already based in Kassel. Kassel is in the centre of Germany and has a good university. Sadly it is often underappreciated as a city. This is despite its vibrant art scene, the Modern art festival the “Dokumenta” and a documentary film festival too. There is also really good food and the surrounding countryside is beautiful.
What do you wish for the future of online voting?
A willingness to engage in solid mathematics and good arguments. It is already clear that online election systems are more secure than postal voting. What would be great would be the ability to have a single and universal authentification system. In Estonia, this is solved by the introduction of an ID card. Unfortunately, the Bundesdruckerei walked away from this initiative in Germany in 2017. However, there are alternatives in sight.