After years of build-up, the Danish voting company Assembly Voting is expanding quickly. “Driven by causes other than just making money”, founder and CEO Jacob Gyldenkærne explains his vision and his belief in security and quality standards.
Democracy Technologies: What are Assembly Voting’s main products and services?
Jacob Gyldenkærne: There are many different types of elections, but broadly speaking, you can draw a line between two main types. The first is the digital ballot return, which is similar to going to the polling station, or sending in a physical ballot, both of which we handle through our system “Assembly Voting X.” The second is a live voting situation, such as an Annual General Meeting (AGM), where the participants vote simultaneously in a short period of time, which we handle through our product “Assembly Conference Voting.”
Both of our systems are built as a digital version of the physical polling station, or as “end-to-end verifiable election systems”. This basically means that all parts of the election process before, during, and after the actual voting can be verified by independent auditors, and the system includes properties like eligibility, voter secrecy, anonymity, and ballot integrity by design.
DT: What can you tell us about the way the market is developing at the moment, in Europe and beyond?
Jacob: This is the subject of a lot of speculation. One thing is for sure: We have had a huge increase in requests and tenders, which indicates that the markets we are looking into are growing. We get requests from all over the world and from very different kinds of organisations seeking a variety of election types. Being in this market for twenty-plus years, I have little doubt that we are seeing the demand on the election market for digital solutions begin to resemble a near-perfect “hockey stick.” It’s been very slowly growing for many years, but with the emergence of COVID, things began to move far more rapidly.
At Assembly Voting, we have experienced growth rates in the range of 40%, and even in the 100s in recent years. To me, that’s an indication of a rapidly growing market.
Our main markets are currently in northern Europe. However, we have been heavily engaged in the US for a while. We were picked by Tusk Philanthropies, a US-based organisation, to make the next generation of a digital ballot return system, one which builds upon our existing system. The general decline in democratic participation is of great concern in the US. We share this concern and are very pleased to be a part of a project that can hopefully make a great positive impact on democratic participation in the US.
DT: What are the biggest challenges facing the market today?
Jacob: As a cautious and democratic-minded citizen, I think it is very important for politicians to establish some minimum standards for digital voting solutions. We are dealing with something extremely sensitive, namely trust in democratic elections and in our democracy. Hence, we must ensure that one of the founding pillars of our society is handled in a way that can ensure trust and verifiability in the entire election process. By setting the bar high, we can differentiate between quality voting systems and so-called “black box” voting systems, and we can have a race to build the best voting systems to meet or even exceed market standards.
DT: What motivated you to get into this line of work? Why did you start this company?
Jacob: For anyone who lived through the 90s after the fall of the Berlin Wall, the Iron Curtain, and Fukuyama’s end of history thinking, it seemed to be a happier, less worried time. Then suddenly, in the beginning of the 2000s, there was a new reality taking shape. Originally, I was studying, and taught political science. I was very worried about the state of the democracy, exemplified by the decline in memberships in political parties. There were few people participating in democratic elections.
I saw this almost ignorant attitude towards democracy itself. The prevailing discourse was simply: if people wanted to participate, they could participate. As long as they had the opportunity to participate, such as by voting, there was no problem. That position, of taking democracy for granted, worried me at that time. And it still worries me, even more now. There were a few that called me paranoid at that time, but even paranoid people can be stalked!
DT: How did you get started?
Jacob: The company started out with us having the opportunity to conduct an election for a Danish labour union. This was in the early years of the internet, though internet usage was already quite widespread in Denmark. That meant a lot of people actually had access to it and were using it for work, private, and social activities. We started out building our first system with Siemens. We built this system aiming to ensure security and integrity in the voting process. Our solution was made available for unions, local communities, pension funds, and so on, perhaps more appropriately termed “everyday-life democracy.” We wanted the system to make the democratic arena accessible from an area where people were living an increasing part of their lives: on the internet.
Since I’m not a technician, but instead educated in political science and public administration, I had to work closely together with people who were way more skilled in this domain than I am. From the very beginning, I’ve been working very closely with academia in security and data science, along with others who are knowledgeable about security issues, digital identity, e-voting, and so forth.
The first stage in working with academia was the result of a meeting with prominent academics from the IT University of Copenhagen in which we decided to pursue our joint interest of examining if and how trust in elections can be accomplished using digital voting methodologies. This resulted in the cross- disciplinary “DemTech” project involving academia, municipalities, and vendors. I believe to this day it is still one of the biggest scientific research projects in digital voting.
DT: You said that you are not a technician. How do you understand your role at Assembly Voting?
Jacob: We have this tagline in Assembly Voting that says: “Protect Democracy, Prove Integrity.” My role is to try to protect trust in democracy by making people aware of our mission, the importance of what we do, and why we should not take our democracy and democratic rights for granted.
I’m just a politically-interested person who really cares about democracy. Democracy is far from perfect, but undoubtedly far better than any other non-democratic alternatives. It all starts with the candidates and the voters at local elections in schools, in universities, in local boards or communities. They are the foundation in a sustainable election, and they should be served with the utmost respect with an election system which can remove any doubt about the result. It is in the local, day-to-day democracy where you learn how to become a democratic-minded citizen and to appreciate the democratic code of conduct. Of course, we have a huge educational task ahead of us, and an even bigger task to transform democratic formats to be in-sync with contemporary living if we are to make democracy the answer to the challenges we face in the twenty-first century.