Wikimedia elections: thoughts

Vitruve Man

Because many Wikipedians and Wikimedians aren’t interested in the politics and inner workings of the Wikimedia Foundation and its movement, elections for the Board of Trustees often turn into a notoriety contest, instead of an weighed expression of agreement with a candidate’s opinions and plans.

From June 28 to July 7, elections for the Board of the Wikimedia Foundation were held. Eligible voters were regular editors from all Wikimedia projects (see requirements and results).

This year, the "election steering committee" introduced some changes in the process in order to fix problems identified during 2006 elections. For instance, endorsements of candidates were introduced to make sure there were only "serious" candidates.

Candidates' statements were translated into many languages thanks to the great work of Wikimedia translators. Though, these statements had to be very short to be easily translated, and it was not easy to figure out for whom to vote. Many people found the amount of information to read to really be aware of election issues was enormous. And actually, it was. Most of the interesting conversations happened on the pages where you could ask your questions to the various candidates; reading all these pages required hours.

In addition to the work done by the election committee, there have also been personal initiatives or proposals, such as randomizing the order of candidates on the vote page, summing up statements and questions pages and mass-sending emails to eligible voters who had not voted yet.

Editors from the French-language Wikipedia found they were lacking information, as the questions pages of candidates were all in English. Statistics did show a major abstention from non-English-language projects.

The fact is that the large majority of voters are unaware of Foundation issues and, actually, most of them do not care about them. Even though, they are invited to vote. What do they do then? Many do not vote, simply because they have no idea whom to vote for. The others vote for people whose name sounds familiar to them. How many times have I heard "I will vote for X because he speaks my language..." No, we vote for ideas, we vote for people who have the skills to run an international nonprofit. Elections shouldn't be a notoriety or a popularity contest.

What could we do to improve the election process? I have heard several proposals:

  • More translations: questions to the candidates are in English, as it is the de facto working language of the Foundation. People would be more interested in discussions if they were translated in their language. That is partly true: of course, more people would read the discussions if they were translated in their language. Though, even English-speaking editors rarely read these pages, they vote for such or such candidate they know. I think improving our efforts in translations is a good idea, but this is not the miraculous solution to improve the electoral process.
  • More debates: some editors suggested debates on local wikis and on IRC. Candidates cannot take part in discussions in 200 different languages, and debates based on interpretations would be wrong. One also suggested 2-hour IRC debates per candidate per language. Even if we managed to organize such debates for a dozen of candidates, that would require a huge and expensive effort in real-time translation. And "a dozen of candidates" is likely to rise up fast given the growing of Wikimedia projects.

There is also another solution I have not heard about, but to which I am attached. The idea of a WikiCouncil was debated many times but never reached maturity. Some months ago, Florence Devouard (Anthere), chair of Wikimedia Foundation Board, tried to start discussions again on this topic, but it ended in yet another failed attempt.

The WikiCouncil could act as an electoral college to elect community representatives of the Board. Such an indirect election would make it easier for local communities to debate in their language, still letting them weigh in the Foundation decisions. Members of the WikiCouncil would be elected by local communities based on their involvement in their community and in Foundation processes. Their mission would be to report foundation issues to communities, and vice-versa. When elections such as the just-ended one happens, we cannot really say elected people really embody the community at large in its diversity. In my opinion, only a parliament-like structure is able to achieve real representation of communities.