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Why you should not vote in the 2024 WMF BoT elections

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By Philip Kopetzky
The Signpost strives to publish a variety of opinion pieces, essays and letters representing a diversity of perspectives; the following article contains the opinions of its author, Philip Kopetzky. These opinions do not necessarily reflect those of the Signpost, its editors or staff, or those of other Wikipedia editors, or of the Wikimedia Foundation.

This serves as an opinion piece and reflection on the current (2024) state of the elections to the Wikimedia Foundation Board of Trustees (BoT). It is not meant as a guide as to how to vote or not to vote, but to maybe offer up some views on why the current system does not help us in our 2030 Strategy goals to become a more just and equitable global community/movement.

Obviously this opinion piece is written from a privileged European, white male perspective, and should be interpreted as such. It mainly addresses other people like me - why that is the case will hopefully become apparent below.

Why you should not vote in the 2024 WMF BoT elections

The elections to the Board of Trustees is currently the only global process with a meaningful impact on Wikimedians everywhere, and will remain so for the foreseeable future, unless the Movement Charter is approved in a version that breaks with the current way of conducting these kind of processes.

How has it gone so far?

Almost every year we go through the process of a community election to elect members of the Wikimedia Foundation Board of Trustees, who are responsible for overseeing and guiding the work of the Wikimedia Foundation with its currently more than 650 employees. This process has not changed greatly in the last 15 years, adding the Single transferable vote system a few years ago. 42 % of voters in the 2022 election came from English or German Wikipedia alone, giving those two projects a very big influence on the results (especially relevant given how homogeneous German Wikipedia as a group is). This influence then has a direct impact on who gets elected: since the founding of the Wikimedia Foundation, not a single person has been community elected and only one person affiliate elected from the Global South. By any given measurement system and the ambitious goals for 2030 that the Wikimedia Foundation has endorsed, this is simply not good enough.

Why is this a problem?

The privilege attached to taking part in these elections is evident based on participation and the candidates listed. This year the list of only 15 candidates was further reduced by three candidates from the Global South that were found to be ineligible, skewing the candidate pool even further towards those groups that are already sufficiently represented on the Board of Trustees. While the chances of regions and groups currently represented on the Board of Trustees is still intact, it would be naive to expect a different outcome when the process and the type of elections candidate stay the same.

On the basic level, the lack of diversity on the Board of Trustees stands in stark contrast with the declarations of the 2030 strategy. While the strategy talks about ensuring "equity in decision-making", this does not apply to the highest and most impactful level (at least as long as the Wikimedia Foundation controls most of the movement funds). That several very good candidates from the Global South have tried unsuccessfully over the years to become members of the Board of Trustees reinforces the perception that there is a glass ceiling kept in place by the election format and the electorate, sowing doubt that this is even an election when the voting power is so skewed towards a powerful minority of voters. Regional conferences are still only able to welcome BoT members from Europe or North America, and the perception will endure that Wikimedia is a movement run from far away, with communities outside of Europe or North America having little influence on the decision-making of organisations like the Wikimedia Foundation (the irony being of course that not even European or North American communities have much influence on the Wikimedia Foundation either).

This situation makes it difficult to advocate or convince people to become interested in international discussions and processes when these barriers exist. The time investment needed to understand the complex and murky structures of Wikimedia is not worth it when that knowledge leads to discussions with other affiliates and communities, but not much action, since the resources and decision-making are locked away at the Wikimedia Foundation. As an example, setting up a new structure like the meta:Wikimedia CEE Hub took a group of 15 people 3 years and financial support from an affiliate and the WMF, and still nearly didn't start because of internal systems at the Wikimedia Foundation that discourage taking any kind of risk. When even this kind of well-resourced project runs into these kind of barriers, it stands to reason that similar projects from regions with fewer volunteers and even less time resources available will struggle even more in the current Wikimedia system.

Of course, the 2030 strategy was supposed to change the power structures and make the BoT election less relevant, because decision-making would be devolved in order to become more accountable towards those affected by these decisions. That we're still in this position in 2024, close to 2030 than to the start of this strategy process, says a lot about how comfortable many feel with the current situation, unaware or choosing to ignore the struggles of others to participate in a meaningful way.

How does not voting help in this situation?

Abstaining from voting (or an election boycott) is a form of political protest in elections when those elections are notoriously biased against candidates of a certain group. While participation in Wikimedia elections is extremely low already and boycotting will not make a noticeable difference, there is also little sense in participating in an election where the outcome is defined by voters who mostly vote for people that look like them.

There is, of course, the option of breaking the mold and voting for everyone who is not from Europe or North America (or ranking everyone from those continents last). It probably comes down to personal choice if protesting a biased election by not voting or trying to fight the bias by casting your vote for everyone else. The latter is something that not everyone will feel comfortable doing, be it a lack of knowledge of candidate's backgrounds or doubts about their suitability for the job (even though some European/North American people might appear more competent, cultural differences in how to boast/not boast about your minor or major accomplishments can lead to wildly different candidate applications and perceptions of the candidates). Both options are equally well suited to make a statement about the shortcomings of the current electoral system. Both options will (with a very high certainty) not change the outcome of the election.

In my view this also means that starting a campaign to support candidates from the Global South would, in the best case, paper over the cracks and let the Board of Trustees point to this election being successful in bringing a more diverse range of voices to the table, while not acknowledging the efforts it took to make this happen. In the worst case, it will create a backlash against such a campaign, leading others to doubling down on only voting for people like them, claiming the campaign to be an illegitimate outside influence.

I personally haven't made my mind up either, but will probably choose to cast a vote for the candidates from underrepresented regions and communities. This time we should make sure that the Wikimedia Foundation can't pretend like it is business as usual. This process needs to change if Wikimedia wants to stay relevant and have a diversity of views on the highest decision-making body that enables us to address the challenges of the future. Voting the same people on to the Board of Trustees again and again will not get us there, that much is for certain.

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This statistic is not so surprising if you consider that the English and German Wikipedias make up 40% of the active userbase across Wikimedia projects. Projects broadly associated with the Global North account for 85%. We're not a "powerful minority", we're a majority, and majority rule is a feature of electoral systems, not a bug.
I don't think you achieve equity by placing one or two people on a distant and unaccountable board. You get it by using real money and real resources to build up projects serving under-represented regions, so that there's actually a sizeable constituency to represent in the first place. Though, in the interim, I agree that increasing the number of seats at the table (as the proposed Global Council does) would help smaller projects get a fair say. – Joe (talk) 15:02, 4 July 2024 (UTC)[reply]
Yes, I agree it's a feature and not a bug, but it's not an insurmountable challenge to take the edge off this system. I originally wrote this piece as a way to express my unease about not even attempting to make the BoT more representative, but carrying on like this is all going well and there's nothing to worry about here.
There are efforts underway to create regional networks in most regions of the world that would build up these projects, at the same time this is also a question of time economy and who has time to engage in this process. Even if you had the same amount of users from West Africa as on German Wikipedia, the percentage of people sparing the time to engage with a BoT election will be lower.
And yes, the Movement Charter would be a very good opportunity to rethink representation and create a voice for the global Wikimedia community. :-) Philip Kopetzky (talk) 16:21, 4 July 2024 (UTC)[reply]


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