Participation in the Nation

It looks like I’ve opened up a can of worms. Last week I bemoaned about the low voter participation in Linux Australia (LA) elections. I spent considerable energy at linux.conf.au (LCA) in Hobart publicising the issue and canvassing opinion from community members. This culminated in a lightning talk titled ‘YOU PEOPLE SUCK’*, where I angrily chastised the community for not participating in Linux Australia. The fury was in jest, but the call to arms was not.

It seems now that the media has grabbed a hold of the matter. Frankly, I’m glad that this issue has been brought to the fore. It has been a catalyst for contemplation and debate, which in my opinion is the hallmark of an open community. In my chats with various people over the matter, a few reasons crop up. These aren’t all necessarily true, but if they are believed by a substantial section of our community, they’d might as well be.

  • I don’t want to pay anything

Membership of Linux Australia is free, as in beard! LA makes a tidy profit from LCA and sponsorships.

  • I don’t know anything about LA
  • I don’t see how LA is relevant to me
  • I don’t see LA doing anything

These three are probably the most disturbing. LA must strive to market itself better and to prove its worth in the community. We’ve come a long way, but I do see some areas where we could improve. For instance, I’ve found over the years that many LCA attendees don’t understand the relationship between LA and LCA. LCA is an LA event, and we shouldn’t let anyone forget it. Other areas where we could improve include support for local groups, particularly LUGs. Various projects have been in the works for a while now, but unfortunately we’ve all been constrained by Real Life. We should be better utilising that famous open source scalability to fix these problems.

  • LA is too opaque
  • I’m not good enough to participate

The sentiments above are complete anathema to a working democracy, and they should be dispatched with accordingly. Yes it’s (generally) true that the open source world is a meritocracy, but that should not dissuade any casual person from having their input.

  • I don’t know any of the candidates
  • I don’t have any specific objections or preferences regarding the candidates

The former is a reflection of our diverse and geographically distributed community. The latter might have some crossover with apathy, but generally it’s an expression that none of the candidates are offensive enough to vote against (the blacklist approach to voting) or preferential enough to vote for. Enthusiasms can go both ways — an unpopular group of candidates might be enough to mobilise an increased number of votes against them.

  • I can’t make it to the AGM, and so cannot vote
  • I thought I was already a member after subscribing to the mailing lists
  • I thought I was already a member after registering for linux.conf.au
  • The voting form is difficult to find
  • The voting system is confusing

These come down to the design and communication surrounding our Web properties. We use MemberDB as our online memberships and voting system, and hence there is no need to physically present yourself to vote (do it in your undies for all I care; just make sure the webcam is off). Each mailing list has a Mailman login, the Web site has another, and MemberDB has yet one more. LCA each year tends to have its own software infrastructure entirely. The voting form does indeed require much digging to reach. There’s plenty of scope here for streamlining.

  • I didn’t know the election was on
  • The voting period is too short
  • My registration wasn’t approved (in time)
  • I signed up during the voting period

The points above are mostly to do with process and procedure. Elections need to be publicised better. One person said to me that they were expecting a big ‘VOTE’ button on the front page of linux.org.au, linking directly to the ballot form. Maybe another Council member can correct me on this, but I gather it’s unofficial policy not to accept new memberships during the voting process. Given that MemberDB is designed to approximate the Australian electoral process, this should come as no surprise. However, this is not stated anywhere in public. Also, since new memberships must be manually confirmed (a precaution to stop spam and multiple sign-ups) there will be an appreciable lag in the approvals process. Don’t expect the Council to have any time to accept new sign-ups during or close to LCA.

I am yet to hear the old ‘one vote doesn’t make a difference’ excuse, but just in case, you can read here on why this attitude is not helpful.

I’d be interested to hear if you have any other reasons (and proposed solutions) for not registering with Linux Australia and voting in the elections. I’d recommend that you take part in the discussion on the linux-aus mailing list, otherwise you can post a comment here or contact me directly if you’d prefer some privacy.

I won’t pretend to have all the answers, or possess some magic map of where we should be going. I’m just another community member like anyone else, who is interested in seeing us move forwards. Please consider assisting LA to address these problems.

LotD: bluehackers.org

* yes, caps are mandatory