Behind the scenes with the Webmasters

OTW elections have always been a bit complicated given the challenges of both preserving voter privacy and ensuring that elections are fair with an entirely virtual organization. We’ve implemented procedures surrounding our election technology to assure that the results of the vote are verifiable, that there are multiple corroborating sources to disallow any possibility of tampering, and that we have created an audit trail. A lot of that work falls on the Webmasters Committee so, to better explain what goes into election planning, we thought we’d give voters a look at the work that this group does to ensure a successful election process.

The OTW Webmasters are quite busy in the weeks leading up to the election — they apply updates, double-check software, and conduct rigorous tests of both the ballot and the ballot tallying. Then two weeks out before the election, the Elections site is locked down. All existing site accounts (including those belonging to all other staff) are deleted, leaving only two. Those two Web staffers then create the ballot according to the Elections Officer’s instructions.

In the following week, the OTW Development & Membership committee delivers a list of eligible voters’ email addresses to the Elections Officer. That list gets divided in half and each half is deposited into the elections Web staffers’ vault spaces, a secure storage account maintained by the OTW and visible only to the individual account holder. Those two Web staffers begin to create the voting accounts using to generate an 8-digit random number to use as an account name, which they pair with a voter email address. No list is created of these accounts, and no record of which number goes with which email is easy to generate. It’s not impossible, just too much trouble for someone to do accidentally. All of these accounts are created as inactive, which becomes important in the next step.

One week prior to the voting period all of our voters get their informational email, which includes the account information created by those Web staffers, and a link that will lead to the ballot once it goes live. A basic outline of how the process will work is written by the Elections Officer, and the elections Web staffers enter that text as an automatic website message that is triggered when the accounts are activated.

The final week before the elections is when we follow-up on any emails that went astray and correct them before voting day. Email spam filters are a frequent culprit. The elections Web staffers also make any necessary edits or additions to the Elections site, since they are the only ones with access — such as elections-related news posts.

On the day the election opens, the elections Web staffers change the automatic account activation message to new text that announces that the ballot is open and contains all necessary voting information. Then, just before the ballot becomes active (it’s on an automatic timer), they trigger the email message to all voters by deactivating all voter accounts and then reactivating them.

The elections Web staffers split the 48-hour voting period into eight-hour shifts, each taking three. Each shift means that the person “on call” is ready to troubleshoot any account access problems the Elections Officer contacts them about, and they also help to create an audit trail. At the end of each shift, the elections Web staffer on duty takes a screenshot of all ballot results as of that moment, zips the resulting images, and drops them into the Election Officer’s vault space. All results are capped each time, meaning that any changes to existing votes would be apparent in the case of examination. Both elections Web staffers are on duty for the final few hours, and both make separate screenshot packages and deposit them in the vault.

Once the ballot has closed, the Elections Officer communicates the results to the candidates and to the voters and posts them publicly. If any candidate chooses to question the result, the screenshots made throughout the process in the web administrative interface would be examined and recounted, as well as potentially corroborated with information from the Systems committee.

OTW Board Resignation: A Message from Jenny Scott-Thompson

We regret to announce that Jenny Scott-Thompson will be resigning from the OTW Board effective at the end of December, which coincides with our organization’s term break. We are deeply saddened to lose her as a board member, but Jenny will be continuing on in her other roles within the OTW as a staffer on the Finance Committee and as part of the Strategic Planning workgroup. She will also finish her term as Elections Officer, which ends at the end of December as well.

This resignation was due to personal reasons relating to increasing demand from her day job, which is leaving her with insufficient time for the various tasks of her role on board. Due to these constraints she doesn’t feel that she will be able to perform her duties as an OTW Board member as well as needed, and she would prefer to step down and offer the opportunity to another OTW staff member that is better able to serve the org at this time.

Jenny’s resignation has an effect on our upcoming election as this will leave us with 3 seats instead of 2 open for candidates and it will also get our board seats back onto a proper cycle sooner than expected.

Jenny has been very active in her duties this term and we regret that we will be losing her energy and commitment to the OTW in a board role. Thank you, Jenny, for the work that you have done so far and we are glad that we will still be getting your input and time in other roles.

Time for a Chat

The OTW has developed a tradition for elections, that we run a couple of public chat sessions with all the candidates. The transcript is posted afterwards for those who missed it. We’ll be changing the format slightly this year. As the org grows and the number of voters increases, we need to make sure everyone gets a fair chance to participate.

The timing of the chat sessions is determined by the candidates themselves. Depending on their availability, the Elections Officer picks the best time that suits as many of them as possible. Each chat will last one hour.

The first chat will be a very general getting-to-know-you session. Questions can be asked in person to all the candidates. At the beginning, the moderator will ask any voters present if they have particular questions, and select one at random using a random number generator. We ask that you don’t repeat questions already sent in via email, and remember that the aim is for those who want to get to know the candidates’ personalities as well as their policies. Please also remember that although some candidates are happy to connect their legal and fannish names, others are not, so some will chat happily about fandoms they have participated in, with many details, while others will keep such discussion to generalities to avoid linking identities.

For the second chat, several people asked last year about getting to see how the candidates will work together. We’re still working through the details of how we can best showcase this, but we envisage it being a free-form discussion between the candidates on a topic of interest to the org, much as would happen in a board meeting.

We’ll announce exact dates and times after the candidates have confirmed, but wanted to give you advance notice of the change in format.

Spotlight on Board: Ira Gladkova on Elections

Spotlight on Board: In this general bi-monthly series, individual OTW Board members will talk about their work, goals, and ideas from a more personal perspective.

This is Ira Gladkova, 2011 Elections Officer, making one last post in that capacity.

As election season approaches for the 2012 term, I want to show where the current election workgroup’s process started by sharing the report I submitted to Board earlier this term. As Elections Officer for the 2011 term, I put together an extensive report on the strengths and flaws I saw in the process during my tenure, the areas that caused confusion and those that were clear, and the needs I saw going forward into future terms.

I am posting this report publicly as a way to personally and officially pass on the torch into excellent and capable hands. This document was shared with Board on March 23, 2012. It formed the basis for discussion on how to begin structuring elections work for the 2012 term. Since then, we appointed Jenny Scott-Thompson as 2012 Elections Officer, and authorized the Elections Workgroup. Jenny and her group have since been hard at work on developing the elections process and addressing many of the concerns outlined in this report. The Elections Workgroup has already begun posting about the 2012 elections, and you’ll be hearing all about the awesome work they’ve done and the great plans they have.

This report reflects only my opinion as 2011 Elections Officer, and is not intended to be reflective of the Board’s opinions as a whole. It is intended only to show the basis Board used for discussion early in the term, not to reflect adopted policy for the 2012 election. You can see action on some of these items already, such as the formation of an Elections Workgroup; an introductory post with FAQ updates and a timeline is already up. To hear more on the 2012 election, stay tuned!

If you have any questions or would like to raise a concern that was not covered in the report, please feel free to submit comments here. You can also contact the new elections officer through the elections contact form.

There is a summary of the report below. The report is duplicated in full after the summary, and can also be found as a PDF.

2011 Elections Report: Table of Contents and Summary

  • Transparency of Process
    • Transparency is a continuing issue, and if an elections process is not transparent, it is not sustainable. Problem areas include:
      • Elections officer: selection, qualifications, duties, purview, and powers. An essential role for voters to understand. Lack of definition in this area is huge concern, transparency impossible without clear definitions.
      • Candidate Q&A: Questions submission process, kind/number of questions submitted, similar questions, process for candidate responses
      • Voter accounts: explanation of voting accounts and separation from OTW membership, AO3 user, and other accounts. This persistent confusion is another deeply concerning issue.
      • Election results and publication: who sees results and why
    • Overall process is ill-defined and not always well-communicated.
  • Elections Officer: Purview and Power
    • Elections officer (EO) has a lot of responsibility (executing the election, supporting candidates, providing voters with means for informed decision), but very little authority. This is toxic to the officer, the candidates, and the process, and cannot be made transparent or sustainable. In particular, EO lacks any way to penalize candidates who do not follow the process.
    • Elections process itself is also poorly defined: when ability to enforce a process is questionable, the results of the process become unpredictable. However, current process is not fair or enforceable in the first place.
    • Possibility of disqualifying noncompliant candidates? Standards of timeliness and compliance are reasonable given other Board/candidate requirements. Well-constructed elections process necessary for this.
    • Elections process includes work from many committees; essential to delineate boundaries of duty and authority vis-à-vis elections officer.
    • Forming elections workgroup may be good workload/purview solution.
    • Is it necessary for EO to be a Board member?
  • Structure of Q-A and Chats
    • Chats and Q-A are current elections centerpiece: two one-hour chats for asking questions, with spillover questions in email.
    • Have great potential but current process unsustainable and inefficient due to growth in candidate spread and number of candidates/questions.
    • Both chats and Q-A should be retained in some form to give candidates variety of ways to showcase strengths, and give voters a broader view. Process should be built around individual strengths of each activity.
    • Candidate Chats
      • Goal is to ask/answer questions in an on-the-spot manner and see candidates interact.
      • Provide unique opportunity for voters to observe candidates interacting with each other similarly to Board work. Could be repurposed to focus on this.
      • Possibilities include casual get-to-know chats at beginning of elections, using chats only for question followup, and chats centered on candidate interaction rather than with voter questions.
    • Candidate Questions
      • Current emphasis is on short, off-the-cuff responses.
      • Longer turnarounds/responses privilege candidates with bigger chunks of time and may lead to information overload for voters. Chat format privileges candidates who work best in high-pressure social situations.
      • Current 24-hour turnaround a decent compromise, but would work better with email questions period scheduled into timeline.
      • Procedure for question batching and ordering is unclear, should be defined and publicized. Sending questions in order received is simplest, but can lead to repetition of similar questions.
      • Possible options for how to do questions are offered.
      • Can candidate statements be translated?
  • Timing and Drives
    • Link between fall membership drive and elections timeline should be examined. Timing of candidate announcements/statements (knowing who’s running) affects drive donations.
    • Pace and length of season: bad lag between candidate announcement and chats if too spread out, voter/candidate fatigue if too fast or long. Simply having a well laid out process may help.
    • Board should consider the role, length, and power balance of the rollover/overlap (“lame duck” syndrome). Predefined activities may help, could be encompassed in elections timeline.
    • Voter eligibility cutoff should be examined and explained. There is slight eligibility overlap between elections; reasoning and details not clear to most voters.
  • Elections Website
    • Elections officer should consult with Webmasters to improve both elections website information and the voting interface.
    • The cutoff for voting eligibility should be clear and prominent on the donations page.
    • Easy way to find most important info besides news: current-year candidate statements, chat transcripts, Q-As; question submissions; how voting works; and about your voter account. Information structure was overall hard to navigate.
    • Information on past elections.
    • Voting accounts and voting site were particularly confusing for many. Details and reasoning should be more transparent, and difference between voter accounts and all other OTW accounts should be made clear.
  • Overall good potential, with great voting system; strengths could be highlighted. Chats and Q-A good opportunity but have not been optimized. General structure of election and EO role need to be better-defined and more transparent, and all this information should be easier to find on the website. We have a strong base, but a lot of work to do.

OTW Elections Report

– Ira Gladkova, 2011 OTW Elections Officer

The 2011 election showcased many facets of OTW’s elections system, including both strengths — such as our voting system — and flaws — such as a general lack of clarity in the process. Overall, however, it has become evident that, with the current size and growth of the org, and as elections become more contested more often, current elections procedures are unsustainable.

As the elections officer for 2011, I here focus more on identifying problem areas rather than proposing specific solutions, though I do strive to offer multiple suggestions where possible. While I would be happy to make myself available to the 2012 elections officer, I prefer to minimally impose my own plans and preferences on whoever fills that role. Moreover, I feel much of the material here warrants full Board discussion/debate. As such, I would prefer to work on and advocate for specific solutions in the equal and collaborative space of a Board discussion, rather than on the basis of my rather expired role as elections officer.

Transparency of Process

Previous elections officers (and those acting in their stead while we drop off the face of the internet on leave) have done a great job with elucidating the process and posting early and often on how things will work. However, there still seem to be many lingering transparency issues.

For example, as evidenced by comments made to me in question submission emails, I don’t think people really know what happens to their questions for the candidates when they submit them to the elections officer. Do the candidates get to see them right then, or not until the chat? What order will questions be presented in? What happens if you submit the same or a very similar question as someone else? How would you even know if that happened? What, if anything does the elections officer do if candidates don’t respond to questions on time? For that matter, how is the elections officer chosen? Overall, there seems to be a lot of confusion among voters as to what goes on behind the scenes during elections — some of this confusion on very crucial points pertaining to the basic foundations of how the election is run.

These are just some of the areas that I feel are unclear to voters. And for an org like the OTW, if it’s not transparent, it’s not sustainable: every transparency issue is also a sustainability issue.

Future incarnations of this process should strive to eliminate as many of these issues as possible. Problem areas based on my experience include:

  • Selection of elections officer
    • How is the officer chosen? When?
    • What are the qualifications?
  • Duties, purview, and powers of elections officer (See section: Elections Officer)
    • What does the officer do?
    • What areas does the officer have authority over?
    • What is the officer’s power in the elections process and with relation to the candidates?
  • Questions submission process
    • How many questions have been submitted?
    • What kinds of questions have been submitted?
    • When will the candidates see them?
    • What happens to similar questions?
    • How long did each candidate take to answer questions?
  • Voter accounts
    • Difference between: (See below)
      • OTW membership
      • AO3 user and related account
      • OTW staff and related account
      • Elections voter account
    • Why the voting site and voter accounts work the way they do (See: Elections Website)

      This caused a lot of confusion and is difficult to break down into specific points — overall, people weren’t sure how the whole system worked in terms of setting up the anonymous accounts, how to use the accounts, why we have such a convoluted method, etc. Some of this can be cleared up with more explanatory text, but this is one back-end process that is really important — it preserves voter anonymity and voting account security — that voters themselves have very little understanding of.

  • Election results and publication
    • Where do the results and other sensitive election information go? What does the officer do with them?
    • Why don’t voters “see the numbers”?

      I want to note that this in particular speaks as to a basic misunderstand of the aims and methods of our elections process — namely, we strive to elect an equal cohort with equal mandates, rather than a ranked set of individuals

One of the most concerning areas for me — besides the lack of definition around the position of elections officer — was the confusion, as usual, of OTW membership and AO3 user status. This is a persistent communication problem and speaks to an ongoing and enormous misunderstanding of overall OTW structure; the addition of the very opaque voter account process during election time furthers the confusion. The voter account process can definitely be explained more and in advance; I strongly suggest that all explanations also mention membership and AO3 account differences.

Overall, transparency has been a major weak point. This is not to say that our process is completely opaque, but it is ill-defined and not always well-communicated. Last year’s election team did a tremendous amount of work in trying to elucidate the process, and overall I do feel the election is relatively accessible. However, there is clearly work to be done here, and I believe one of the most essential areas is working out clear definitions of the election process and the election officer position. Without an internal understanding of how the process and office work that is consistent, well-defined, and thorough, we cannot pass that clarity and detail in turn to the public.

Elections Officer: Purview and Power

In terms of both transparency and ability to execute the elections process, this is the biggest issue I encountered as an elections officer: what, exactly is the purview of the elections officer? What authority does the officer have? What responsibility?

My experience indicates that the position is weighed with tremendous responsibility — that of seeing to the execution of the entire election — but comes with very little authority. This puts the elections officer in an untenable position, which in turn erodes their ability to support and guide the candidates and also their ability to answer to voters. The role is toxically ill-defined; and where the role is ill-defined, we cannot hope to make it transparent.

Concomitantly, the elections process itself is also poorly defined — where the position that sets and enforces policy and procedure is poorly defined, the process is then also poorly-defined: with questionable ability to enforce the process, the results of the process become unpredictable, obviating much of the purpose of having a process. And likewise, an ill-defined, unenforceable process is neither transparent nor sustainable.

In particular, the elections officer lacks any authority to enact sanctions on non-compliant candidates; in effect, there is no real penalty for candidates who do not follow the established process. However, this issue presupposes an elections process that is fair and enforceable in the first place; this is at best questionable for the current process.

For example: When one candidate gets more time on a question, or has an opportunity to see others’ answers before writing their own, then it is not fair to the other candidates. But if the elections officer cuts off submissions and voters don’t see any late responses, then that’s not fair to the voters, because that question was asked and it needs an answer. At the same time, being able to see which candidates are chronically late or chronically on-time is also valuable information for voters to have. And yet, the tight turnaround time required by the current process is not equally fair to all candidates. Were a Q-A period clearly set out in the timeline such that all knew in advance the kind of time commitment required during that period, then that turnaround would be enforceable — but this is not currently the case, and so strict enforcement is itself unfair.

However, assuming a well-constructed elections process, the elections officer must have not only the duty to carry it out, but also the authority to enforce it — and perhaps, within reasonable limits, adapt it. I want to put forward the possibility here of candidates earning disqualification through non-compliance. This is something definitively impossible given the current setup; it would, given the ill-defined process, be unfair and outside the current vaguely defined authority of the elections officer. While we as an organization must strive to be welcoming to fans of varying backgrounds and needs, the election of Board officers is a matter that touches on our bylaws, the trust members have in us, and our professionalism. We have other requirements for candidates (membership, length of service), and the position candidates are running for requires a serious commitment of time and responsibility; it would not be unreasonable to hold candidates to certain standards of timeliness and general compliance in accordance with an elections process.

It is also essential to keep in mind that the elections process includes contributions from many committees, and so any intersection in duty and authority between the elections officer and those committees should be clearly delineated. Committees who contribute to the elections process directly include Comms, DevMem, Finance, Systems, Volcom, and Web.

Given the availability of well-defined workgroups, one solution to the workload and cross-committee demands of running the election could be to have an elections workgroup form every year. The necessity to carefully define the role of the elections officer — presumptively, the leader of the workgroup — would be even greater in this case.

Another question to consider is when and where the election officer’s duties end. Is the elections officer responsible for mediating the transition of new and outgoing Board members, such as scheduling chats and the transfers of access/powers? Should a debrief/report be required at the end of the officer’s term, and simultaneously signal the end of said term? What is the deadline in a given year for choosing an elections officer?

One more idea to consider in connection with election officer authority is who fills the position: currently, it is a Board member chosen by the Board. I believe that it is important for the elections officer to at least have experience on Board, as one of the officer’s current duties is to talk to candidates about what the role of Board member entails. However, this also intersects with the election officer’s power: how much of it comes from being a Board member? Where are the intersections and limits? I feel this question needs to be considered.

Finally, setting and communicating the powers of the elections officer especially in cases of procedure non-compliance is particularly important for transparency — this is one of the least transparent and most problematic aspects of elections, and is an area I feel is essential for voters to understand. In the end, I want to emphasize that the election officer’s duties stretch in multiple directions: the officer is responsible for seeing to the execution of the election, for supporting the candidates and communicating with them about the process and the positions they’re running for, and for providing the voters with everything they need to make an informed decision. The ability of the elections officer to execute all three in tandem is currently stymied by ill-defined roles and processes, a lack of authority, and a general lack of transparency.

Structure of Q-A and Chats

Currently, chats and Q-A form the centerpiece of the elections process in terms of giving voters a chance to get to know the candidates and elicit their positions on various issues. Technically, Q-A and chats are currently supposed to be synonymous: the primary purpose of the chats is to ask and answer questions in an on-the-spot manner, with a secondary goal of getting to know and observing the candidates in a semi-formal situation. The goal is to ask as many questions as possible during the chats, with the rest being “spillover” and relegated to email. As the number of both candidates and questions increases, a smaller proportion of questions make it to chat, and more and more questions are asked over email.

In theory, this is one of the strengths of our process, but it has become more cumbersome and difficult to navigate. The chats and Q-A are still a fantastic opportunity for both voters and candidates, and I do think this remains a strength, overall, of our process. However, I think it is worthwhile, at this point, the reconsider the purposes of the chats and Q-A and likewise consider new possibilities for their structure and timing.

Candidate Chats

We currently schedule two one-hour candidate chats every election. However, the more candidates we have, the harder it is to schedule these chats or to make the chat length longer, especially as we get candidates from many places around the world. And the more candidates we have, the harder it is to cover more than 2-3 questions per chat, especially as questions have grown in complexity/depth. Then, too, we run into issues of fairness when not all candidates can attend a given chat — the voters are deprived of or delayed in receiving information from/about the absent candidates, and/or the absent candidates get an entirely different and longer opportunity to answer questions.

At the same time, I think it’s important to preserve the opportunity for voters to meet with the candidates and — importantly — to see the candidates interacting with and playing off each other. This is another purpose to the chats that I believe is currently overshadowed by other aspects, but could and should be important: the opportunity for voters to witness the candidates interacting with each other. There are other opportunities for candidates to interact with voters, both officially — in the form of Q-A at the very least — and unofficially, in the candidates’ own spaces at their choice and leisure. However, the opportunity for voters to see candidates interacting with each other in an environment roughly approximating the very work they would be doing on Board is limited and unique. So how can we preserve this opportunity while keeping it sustainable and fair?

I think one part of the answer may be to try and repurpose the chats to something more casual and less driven by grueling questions. Of course, the grueling questions — and the opportunity for the askers/voters to query further and interact to a limited degree — should still be preserved somewhere. Would it be possible to run something like this without it getting out of hand? I think the key to something like this would be to make time for the questions that doesn’t intersect with the time the chats are scheduled.

Possibilities (not necessarily mutually exclusive) along these lines include:

  • Chats at the beginning of the process framed as casual get-to-know sessions
  • Having chats only for Q-A followup, not for initial question-asking
  • Chats centered specifically around candidates interacting among themselves

In any case, the structure of the chats depends on how Q-A is handled. Detaching the Q-A imperative from the chats gives much more flexibility in terms of chat timing, purpose, etc.

However, one argument for retaining some actual Q-A in the chats is that it gives candidates a variety of arenas in which to showcase their strengths. Some candidates may work best in chat, some over email, and the variety of opportunities to showcase strengths is an important factor to consider in designing a new chat and Q-A structure. This not only gives candidates a variety of opportunities, but also gives voters a broader range of information on the candidates.

Candidate Questions

Currently, the procedure around questions is not very clear. In the past, it didn’t particularly need to be, as there were fewer questions, and they could all easily be covered during the chats. But we had over twenty questions last election: an impossible number to handle in chats and a lot of questions to answer in the short elections timeframe.

One element of the Q-A process currently held as important is the off-the-cuff nature of the responses, rather than giving the candidates time to make polished essays. This is supposed to be accomplished in chat, and an attempt to approximate the conditions over email is the source of the 24-hour turnaround for overflow questions. Longer turnarounds and longer answers privilege those candidates who have the time and ability to craft polished answers and perhaps even run them by a beta; it’s also more likely to create information overload for voters if every question comes with a thousand-word answer. But the chat format also privileges those who think most quickly and clearly on their feet, in highly social and high-pressure situations.

In this sense, sending out questions with a 24-hour turnaround is a good compromise, forcing quicker, more distilled answers without as much social pressure. In this case, it seems smart to schedule in a week (with a second just-in-case week) where the candidates know to expect batches of questions every 24 hours. The elections officer can then arrange the questions into batches and send them out. The candidates will know in advance that, during that week, they’d need 20-40 minutes each day to work on questions.

Batching and ordering is itself something I was asked about and something that could be more transparent. The course of least resistance (least work for elections officer, least opportunity to accidentally muddy the waters by arranging questions in some specific way) is to just send things out in the same order they came in. But what happens if two or more very similar, or very closely related questions are asked? It doesn’t seem helpful to make candidates feel like they’re answering the same thing over and over again. The process for batching should be publicized, at least; if possible, we should try to think of a process that minimizes the number of similar questions.

Moreover, all this presupposes a Q-A structure fundamentally similar to what we already have. There are other possibilities that may be explored — even variations that do not preserve the “off-the-cuff” nature. My inclination is not to go down that road, but depending on what needs we have, it may end up being the more reasonable choice.

One possibility that would preserve tight turnaround would be, rather than sending all questions to all candidates at the same time, to send questions as candidates have time, but still have the same time limit, and release answers from all candidates together at the end of some time frame like a week. Assume all questions (or all for a specific session) are gathered in advance. The candidates collectively have one week to answer them. Over that week, each candidate notifies the elections officer when they are ready for a batch of questions. The batch is sent, and that candidate has 24 hours to respond. They can’t have the next batch until they have answered the previous set. All answers to all batches are due at the end of the week, with the number of batches designed to give a day or two without questions assuming a rate of one batch per day. If a candidate wants, they can answer all the batches one after another over the course of a single day, or spread it out over a week. The voters will still get timely responses, while the setup would be more flexible to accommodate candidates’ varying schedules.

Other options to consider include giving voters some way to know what questions have been submitted, which should help with having the similar questions submitted. Is there some way to do this such that candidates cannot see the questions? It’s something to think about.

Finally, it may help to give candidates some space for an official statement centered more around issues — like a position statement — rather than the current style, which focuses on “get to know the candidate” over giving the candidates space to give their vision of the org and their priorities. It may help to focus the subsequent Q-A period if we explicitly split those two apart.

I also want to note a question: is there a chance that candidate statements could be translated?

In the end, my overall suggestion is to think carefully about the individual strengths and purposes of chats and Q-A, and to build an election process centered around those strengths. Chats are difficult to schedule, but it may serve us best, in the end, to try to have more of them serving a variety of purposes. As the cornerstone of the election process — for voters, at least — it would not be unreasonable for chats and Q-A to take a significant amount of time. As such, the timing of the election process should be considered with this factor in mind.

Timing and Drives

In this section, I want to go over a few points related to timing of the elections process, in whole and in parts. Unfortunately, it is difficult to go into specific suggestions without a more concrete idea of how the new process will shape up; I therefore mostly cover issues I feel need to be considered in the timing rather than specific timing ideas.

Traditionally, the fall membership drive has been a keystone in the elections timeline. I want to suggest opening this tie for examination, looking at the ways in which the two depend on one another. Elections provide a great motivator for/reminder to join, but it sounds worthwhile overall to examine what DevMem wants out of the drive, what needs the elections officer has, and see if the relationship should be adjusted.

Overall, as the org and elections grow, it may be necessary to expand the timeline of the elections season, particularly if large changes are made to the elections process, e.g. how chats/questions are handled. From my view, the two biggest anchors in terms of actual dates for election timing are: (a) enough time at the end for appeals as well as a small overlap period (but that overlap should indeed be small) and (b) the fall drive. In terms of large chunks of time, the two big factors are the drive and the chat/question process.

In relation to the drive, there are several key questions to consider. One of the most important is the timing of candidate announcements — and possibly some initial “get to know the candidates” activity — relative to the start/end of the drive. Not knowing who the candidates will be can cause a lot of frustration for potential voters during the drive — last year, there was significant consternation when the candidate statements were not available until after the drive. Knowing the candidates — and therefore likely also having some idea as to the elections issues and dynamics — can be a huge motivator in a membership drive. However, this also puts a lot of pressure on both the elections officer and on DevMem, as it would require that elections activities start before the fall drive.

Another factor to consider, particularly in the 2012 election cycle, is the possibility of tying the fall drive and the willing to serve drive to the five-year anniversary. This would further impact timing of the election activities; in either case, careful consultation on the matter of timing is necessary with DevMem and Volcom.

Aside from the drives, there is the general question of the timing and pace of election activities. There has often been lag between candidate announcements and the chats, which can make voters lose interest in the process; it may be beneficial to arrange an elections schedule regularly punctuated by significant events (chats, drives, Q-A sessions). On the other hand, a lengthy and active election season can give rise to both candidate and voter fatigue. Last year, significant candidate fatigue ensued after the solid weeks of chats/questions. This may be ameliorated by starting election activities earlier and giving the election events more room to spread out, as well as by structuring individual events to be more friendly to candidate schedules. However, voter and candidate fatigue remain an issue even in this case. I believe simply having a structured and well-defined process and schedule would help with both: just knowing what’s coming and when it all ends can help people get through the process. And while the position candidates are running for is difficult and time-consuming — making an election process of similar difficulty not unreasonable — it is also important to remember that by the same token that qualifies our candidates in the first place, they will all have significant other duties within the org.

One item I would particularly ask Board itself to consider is the rollover/overlap period at the end of the election. What purpose does it serve? How long should it be? Importantly, I want to point out the issue of power during the interstice: we have a mild case of “lame duck” syndrome among standing Board members, while newly elected Board members are generally eager to get to work and begin enacting their goals. It might help to have a pre-defined set of activities that happen during this time, to give the time more structure and a commonly understood purpose. This could include activities for standing and newly-elected members separately and together. While some amount of normal Board business must continue during this time, the transition between Boards is hugely important in terms of transferring knowledge and fostering continuity; I believe it would be beneficial to encompass this under the elections timeline aegis and give it the same sort of well-defined structure and timing as I hope will be given to the rest of the elections process.

Finally a note about the eligibility cutoff: it is currently not obvious that our cutoff periods overlap slightly. The cutoff for voting eligibility is generally a month before the election, rather than the election date itself, to give all the appropriate parties (the elections officer as well as the Finance, Development and Membership, and Webmasters committees) time to prepare and review the voter rolls; in addition, there’s often a small overlap in eligibility periods between election years around the cutoff dates. Last year, the election was 16-18 Nov 2011, so the cutoff date was a month prior to that: 17 Oct 2011. There’s no timeline yet for an election next year, but it would be similar to this year’s: at a guess, next year’s eligibility timeframe would be something like 1 Oct 2011 to around 17 Oct 2012. Generally speaking, if you donate too late for one year’s election, you’ll be qualified to vote in the next year’s — there are no blackout periods for eligibility. The small overlap does let someone who donated during the overlap vote in two years (though the actual number of people who qualify this way is quite small — less than half a percent of our membership). There are several reasons for this overlap. The election requires that all voters be OTW members in good standing as of the cutoff date, and OTW memberships are calculated on a monthly basis (this is why we send out membership reminders for soon-to-lapse memberships monthly rather than daily). So if you donate on 1 Oct 2010, your membership will last until the end of Oct 2011 — it actually expires on 1 Nov 2011. This means that people who donated between 1 Oct 2010 and 16 Oct 2010 were still in good standing as of 17 Oct 2011, even though it’s a few days more than a year past the day on which they donated.

There are a few additional reasons for the overlap. On the whole, as an organization, we prefer to try to enfranchise rather than disenfranchise, within reason — practicality and time constraints demand that we give the creation and review of voter rolls the necessary time, but outside of that we try to be generous. We know it can be a little confusing, and we try not to penalize people for it, especially given the international nature of the org where timezone differences can make strict deadlines difficult. We also have a membership drive in October, and the dates for that often vary, so we try to work around the drive dates to make sure that people who donated so they could vote do indeed get a chance to do so.

This overlap period came up with at least one member who asked me about the timing. If we keep the overlap period, then I think this is one part of election timing where we need to communicate clearly and carefully and be maximally transparent.

Elections Website

Another major issue encountered repeatedly during the last election was people having trouble with the elections website. This includes both the informational site and the voting interface. It is my impression that the entire site would benefit from a redesign, but this is a project that would need to be executed in collaboration with the Web committee. I suggest that the next elections officer and I consult with Web on specific issues and proposed changes. For now, I will note the issues I saw:

Lack of clarity on the donations page wrt eligibility cutoff

Many people had trouble with this: the relevant button used to say “Donate to Vote”, which confused people who donated after the cutoff, as they thought they would be able to vote. This was changed so that the button was less confusing, but this continues to be one page that is in need of serious clarification. The eligibility cutoff should be very clearly visible — if possible, it may be beneficial to change the central donations page to also mention the cutoff during the elections period. This was overall the most persistent and damaging website problem.

Easy way to find most important info besides news

Some people had trouble finding basic elections information because it was linked only from FAQ or subpages. A sitemap would help overall, but there is also a general lack of links available directly from the landing page and throughout the site. Potential suggestions for such links include:

  • Current-year candidate statements
  • Compiled transcripts/Q-A
  • Submit a question to candidates (there is a general contact link, but it may be good to emphasize this particular function)
  • How voting works
  • About your voter account

Overall, many people had trouble navigating the information structure of the website; putting the most important links up front/everywhere only addresses part of this issue.

Information on past elections

I’ve heard reports that this is very difficult to find, and I do think this is valuable information that people demonstrably want to be able to look up. Currently, there isn’t really an intuitive way to find transcripts, Q-A’s, and candidate statements from previous elections (it’s under “Policies”).

The voting accounts and voting site

Many people found this part of the process particularly confusing. Each voter is given an anonymous, secure account on the voting site. The username is a random string of numbers, and voters are asked to set their passwords before the ballot opens (so there’s time to iron out any problems, etc.). Many voters were confused about the difference between having this account and all other OTW-related accounts; there were a number of login problems surrounding this. Once properly logged in, many were confused about the ballot not yet being available.

The process and reasoning behind these voter accounts should be more transparent, particularly for something that plays such a key role in how we run elections. The voting site would also benefit from more informational text, or possibly a restructuring. Very importantly, the difference between the voter account and all other OTW accounts — particularly AO3 user accounts — should be made as clear as possible.

A lot of the process behind the website in general was recounted in this election news post: . Overall, I believe that a lot of the information that was included in news posts such as this one and the IRV post last year ( ) should be made available earlier — for the entire election season — and be more closely integrated with the rest of the website.

Overall, I feel our elections process has great potential. I believe our voting system is spectacular, and this is one of the strengths I believe could be really highlighted, for both transparency and to show what a great system it is for our purposes. Our chats and Q-A provide a great opportunity, but have not really been used to maximum advantage. The general structure of the election could be better-defined and more transparent, as could the role of elections officer, and all of this information could be made easier to find on the elections website. We have a strong base to start from, but there is a lot of work ahead towards optimizing our elections process to fit our needs and strengths.

All about OTW election questions

We had a lot of questions submitted to the candidates by voters last year, and we’re expecting even more this year. We all want to know what they think of the particular area of the organization we care about.

However in order to be fair to both voters and the candidates we need to balance the needs of each group. So for the big questions that come up every year, we’ll be asking the candidates to write a mini manifesto, in a question-and-answer format about their goals for the OTW and its projects. This will be available at the same time as their biographies, so you can read these before writing in with questions.

Secondly, we’ll organize the questions that are sent in by voters. All the questions will be gathered in advance. The Elections Officer will combine questions that are essentially identical while endeavoring to preserve nuance, taking advice from the current board if needed. Candidates will then be sent those questions over a rolling period, with 24 hours to answer, and a maximum word count of 200 words per question. This will mean that we preserve the quick-response, chat-style feel, but prevent the candidates from getting overworked trying to write long essays.

Late answers will be marked as such on the website if submitted within 12 hours. Anything more than 12 hours late will not be posted. The candidates collectively have one week to answer all the questions. Over that week, each candidate notifies the elections officer when they are ready for a new batch of questions. The batch is sent, and that candidate has 24 hours to respond. They can’t have the next batch until they have answered the previous set. All answers to all batches are due at the end of the week, with the number of batches designed to give a day or two without questions assuming a rate of one batch per day. If a candidate wants, they can answer all the batches one after another over the course of a single day, or spread it out over a week.

In this manner we hope to give candidates sufficient time to reflect on the questions and manage their schedules while also offering voters a short-term response to their concerns in a more clearly presented format.

2012 OTW Elections

The Elections workgroup has begun advance planning for our next election in November and in the interests of transparency, we’d like to point out a few useful links. Our FAQs have been updated, with further updates coming soon, and the timeline for 2012 is now available. The FAQs now answer a lot of the questions that came up last year, so please do read them, and let us know if you have any concerns or queries.

We’ve made a few changes to the format of the chats and questions to candidates, to give voters a fair chance to ask questions while making it equal for all candidates and without burdening them with excessive time commitments. You can see some of the details in the FAQs, and we’ll be explaining more over the next few months.

Our Elections Officer this year is Jenny Scott-Thompson, supported by a workgroup of people from Communications and Webmasters.

If you’d like to vote in the election, you need to be a member – i.e. have donated $10 to the OTW within the past year. If you’ve been a staffer for at least a year, you’ll be getting an email about nominations in early September, but feel free to contact Jenny or the workgroup with any questions in the meantime.