The important thing is consensus
Wikipedia is governed by consensus. That means the most important step in deciding what to do is asking others, debating the issue, and addressing everyone's concerns. Occasionally a decision is eventually put to a vote; however, this should be the last resort when consensus cannot be reached by discussion. Users should avoid putting formal policy proposals to a vote; only if a policy is required to ensure the smooth running of Wikipedia should formal policy be written. Formal policies are by nature contrary to Wikipedia's principles of "be bold" and "ignore all rules", the first two items in Wikipedia's Simplified Ruleset.
Votes that determine the popularity of primarily cosmetic elements of Wikipedia, such as on template standardisation to decide which style of template is the most popular, are an example of when a vote can be a good way to determine community preferences.
However, similar votes on more substantive issues, such as attempting to create policy for where templates are located, at template locations, are better left to the discussion and negotiation process to form a consensus to use as a guideline, rather than create a formal policy to use for enforcement.
Votes should only very rarely be used to form policy; other means of seeking consensus should be exhausted first. Even policies designed to address disruptive problems on Wikipedia, such as the Three Revert Rule should come to vote only after the terms, condition, start time, and duration of the voting period have been decided by consensus.
Sockpuppets – the downside of voting
Wikipedia has the occasional problem with sockpuppets, that is, new accounts that are created primarily to cast a vote on one or more issues. It is irrelevant whether these are multiple accounts of the same user, or friends of that user that are not otherwise involved in the Wiki. Sometimes the account simply appears, casts a vote, and is discarded; in some other cases, particularly on articles for deletion, accounts are made that first make a couple dozen of simple edits, and then make a number of votes.
Suffrage – a remedy to the sockpuppet problem
Since many users find the latter issue undesirable, several vote processes use a formal or informal suffrage policy, stating that users may not vote unless they meet certain criteria. Usually these criteria involve the account having been created before the vote started, and/or the account having a certain minimum number of edits. Apart from this, it is policy that if a user has multiple accounts then only one of those accounts may vote.
For important proposals, it is useful to set a strict suffrage policy at the beginning of the vote. Otherwise, after the vote closes, people may start an argument over what the suffrage policy should have been – and at that point it may be possible (though unlikely) that the vote would pass or fail depending on where the bar of suffrage is set. This debate can be avoided by making it clear and unambiguous from the start.
The downsides of restricting suffrage
- Not all new users are sockpuppets. By banning them from voting we risk:
- Losing fresh insight brought by new users.
- Alienating new users and discouraging them from contributing to Wikipedia.
- Strict suffrage requirements are game-able:
- Edit-count requirements are trivially game-able, although this is less so if the user needs to have a certain amount of edits before voting starts.
- Account-length requirements are also game-able, although it would require planning beforehand. However, if we decide to make suffrage a common requirement, it is possible that a section of the Wikipedia community will build a set of accounts, thus creating an arms race between those who don't contribute honestly and those who seek to weed these people out. (*)
- Not only are edit counts game-able, but legitimate contributors not gaming the system may be removed from useful debate and consensus if the edit-count limit is set too high.
- Suffrage rights are sometimes the spur that gets anonymous users registered. Delaying that right after registration will reduce the number who register.
(*) This point might sound dramatic and unlikely. Some people assert that sockpuppets themselves didn't exist until we started relying on voting percentages. That isn't strictly true, although it has contributed to the phenomenon; the original reason for employing sockpuppets was creating extra persona to agree with you, thus asserting a consensus on your side when in fact there is none. Water always finds the easiest path, so do those who want to cheat the community.
Most vote-related pages on Wikipedia, such as WP:AFD and WP:RFA, use an informal system of suffrage that is based on common sense. This means that, while anyone can vote, votes can be discarded or given less weight if they are made by a user with a lack of edit history, or a probable sockpuppet. There are no strict limits here, it is a matter of judgment and discretion for the person (generally an admin) closing and concluding the discussion. It can reasonably be assumed that this applies anywhere on the Wiki, unless specified otherwise.
A few areas in Wikipedia have a strictly defined suffrage policy. Generally these are very broad-scope votes on official policy, or election of WikiOfficials.
- In November 2004, the ArbCom amendment vote had a strict suffrage policy, requiring at least 500 edits and an account created before the vote started.
- In June 2005, the Wikimedia Board Vote allowed users to vote only if they had 400 or more edits by the time the vote started. Similar limits have been in place for all subsequent Board elections.
- In July 2005, the Speedy Deletion proposal author required suffrage of having at least 250 edits by the time the vote started. During the vote, some people complained about this limit, but because the requirements would not have impacted the results of the poll in any significant way, the arguments have been dropped.
- Rarely, an AFD or VFD vote that suffered from sockpuppets is restarted and given strict suffrage on the new version, on the order of requiring 100 edits to allow a user to vote.