Questions raised over secret voting for WMF trustees
Chris Keating (The Land
), election facilitator and member of the WMUK board
James Hare (Harej
), election facilitator and president of Wikimedia DC
Lorenzo Losa (Laurentius
), election facilitator and former secretary of Wikimedia Italy
Ziko van Dijk: "voting in private has been a feature of this process since the first time it was introduced, in 2009. I think the issue could do with more discussion."
Anders Wennersten: strong words about the "in-person" meeting of candidates in Berlin
Alice Wiegand, retiring trustee: board membership as a whole, not just affiliate-selected seats, needs wide discussion.
Last week we reported the announcement of two new affiliate-selected WMF trustees. The board of trustees is the most powerful and influential body in the movement, and chapters have been permitted to select two of the 10 seats since 2008, for two-year terms that start in even-numbered years. Last January, the WMF board granted thematic organisations a vote (there is as yet only one "thorg"); the third affiliate category, user groups, are not part of the process. Frieda Brioschi from Italy will return to the board after a term in 2007–08, and Patricio Lorente from Argentina will continue for a second term. One notable feature of this year's election was that only 27 of the 41 eligible affiliates voted. This almost certainly affected the outcome, since the second-placed candidate of the two, Frieda Brioschi, won over incumbent Alice Wiegand by just "a handful of votes", a point made by election facilitator Chris Keating.
On 9 June the Signpost wrote to Keating and the other two election facilitators—James Hare and Lorenzo Losa—asking which of the 41 affiliates did not vote—and what preferences were cast by those that did—under the assumption of openness and transparency about the process. Keating declined both requests on the basis that "according to the selection process, votes are cast in private", and pointed us to where the matter had been discussed "a bit" on Meta.
This "bit" comprised two short posts on 17 January—Laurentius: "Do we want to have a public vote or not? The current draft prescribes a public vote on Meta. ...". James Hare: "Holding the vote on the chapters wiki is a better idea. ...". Eleven hours later, Hare changed the resolution that would go to chapters for endorsement, so that it stated that the vote would be held not in public, on Meta, but on the private chapters wiki. It appears that this change was endorsed unquestioned, although that process itself was conducted in secret among whatever affiliates might have participated. By contrast, the candidate statements and Q&As for the election were in public, on Meta.
In response to the Signpost's question, "what have the affiliates got to hide?", James Hare told us that "the purpose of the private ballot is to allow votes to be cast without fear of reprisal. ... no one is suggesting that an open ASBS vote means that people will get killed over their votes. Regardless we have a duty to pick the best possible candidates to represent the interests of the Wikimedia Foundation. We have decided as a group that the best way to do this is by doing so out of the view of the candidates." He continued:
||[Some] affiliates have posted their votes on their wikis and you can freely ask them for links. ... Other organizations have acted in favor of privacy, and their wish should be respected. ... It is up to the individual affiliates to determine whether they want to be transparent. In all honesty, we encourage you to talk to them. / What do we have to hide? We have to hide votes. That is our final word.
We should point out that in the previous election two years ago, not only which chapters voted and how they voted, but the identity of candidates, were explicitly restricted to "members of chapter boards"; chapter members did not even have the right to know how their elected representatives voted on their behalf, a rule that one Wikimedian who was a chapter president at the time told us "was quickly disregarded". While Wikimedians at large are still shut out of the system, for chapter members the secrecy provision has morphed into a messy situation in 2014: some chapter committees publish their votes, and others do not. Keating linked us to WMUK's detailed disclosure to their own members and anyone else, even setting out the preferences of each individual board member: "1. Alice 2. Patricio 3. Frieda 4. Anders." James Hare, who is president of Wikimedia DC, linked us to its May minutes (a document that suggests a high level of professionalism in the chapter). Item 12 discloses an equal-first preference for Lorente and Wiegand, and equal-second for Brioschi and Wennersten.
A brief survey we conducted revealed that at least some, possibly many, chapter committees do not inform their members. For example, Ichsan Mochtar, head of Wikimedia Indonesia's board of trustees, told us that the chapter committee followed what it understood as the rule, "that it was a secret ballot". Stepping aside from his role in the chapter, he said, as a Wikimedian "I personally have no problem having either an open ballot or another close ballot the next time we do this. As long as the choice is agreed by the majority of the affiliates." Wikimedia Australia appears to have published no records of committee meetings since February. The Signpost tried to check the published committee minutes of several other chapters, including Wikimedia Italia, but found that access is blocked to non-members.
The day after our initial email exchange with Keating, he opened a thread on Meta, Reflections on the process, which has sparked discussion about a number of issues surrounding the election, among them openness. Ziko van Dijk, chair of Wikimedia Netherlands until March 2014, wrote: "I would not mind to know which organisation supported which candidate. When was the secrecy introduced, is it a requirement of WMF?", to which Keating replied, "I suspect that in a number of cases, it's a reflection of an organisation lacking the capacity to participate (there are still some very small chapters). In other cases, it might be because organisations feel that there is no need to get involved in the 'politics' of the movement."
Aschmidt, who seconded Ziko's request for more openness in the election process, suggested that this scenario might give the bigger affiliates "an even larger say in the process which again strengthens their influence vice versa the smaller affiliates in the long run because they are not represented properly on the board. I think, those affiliates should either be adequately supported in order to provide them with sufficient manpower and expertise to become viable members of the movement, or we should think about reducing the number of affiliates to those who are really fit to act responsibly and who are able to come up to the expectations the community puts in them." On the other side, one participant wrote: "The primary reason for keeping votes secret in most voting systems is to prevent reprisals. It would therefore be consistent that chapters who voted be listed as having voted but the votes remain secret."
The Signpost asked all four candidates for their views on the low turnout, secrecy, and whether chapter memberships should be involved in the vote. Patricio Lorente was unaware of which affiliates didn't vote, or why: "the turnout is pretty lower (in percentage) in community elections and in either case, if the process was conducted properly and anyone with voting rights was duly informed, I don't think it is accurate to talk about a loss of legitimacy."
Anders Wennersten told us: "I have no problem with only 27 of 41 about 2/3 participating and believe it more reflects that some affiliates are not wellworking, and not a problem with the process as such or the legitimacy of the result". Although he didn't agree with WMUK's disclosure of individual board members' preferences, he said: "why the votes from the different Board[s] cannot be made public I do not understand and it is against the culture of Wikipedia ...". Wennersten had "no problem with the outcome" of the vote, but was highly critical of the "in-person" meeting of candidates with affiliate participants at the recent Berlin conference, attended by only two candidates, with one on skype and one unable to be present at all. Planned recording/streaming was abandoned for technical reasons. "I feel it made the whole election process unfair," he wrote.
Alice Wiegand wrote to the Signpost:
||... there are good reasons to keep some stages of the process closed, for example to have a chance to exchange and discuss first thoughts without any commitment. But a movement like ours, so much dedicated to openness and transparency, should be able to create a space where it is natural and convenient for any eligible association to present their eventual preferences and results. And talk about it, learn about respective criteria, wishes and needs.
... it is rightly left to the respective Boards how they find their preference, but they should at least inform their members about their decision.
The turn-out of this vote worries me, ... Obviously we have affiliates which can't participate, or do not want to participate, or just don't care. ... This and even more should be discussed with a broader audience, not only within the Board.
She believes wider issues about board membership need to be discussed widely: does it reflect all movement needs, do affiliate seats provide more diversity, and are twice-yearly changes to board membership reasonable? "That's what we should ask ourselves rather than only picking out one single part of it ...".
We received no reply from Frieda Brioschi to an email sent three days before publication.