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: blue​hack​ers​.org

* yes, caps are mandatory