Wikipedia works by building consensus. Consensus is an inherent part of a wiki process. When conflicts arise, they are resolved through discussion, debate and collaboration. Polling, while not forbidden, should be used with care, if at all, and alternatives should be considered. In addition, even in cases that appear to be "votes," few decisions on Wikipedia are made on a "majority rule" basis. (See Wikipedia is not a democracy). On occasion, "higher" bodies (e.g. the Arbitration Committee, Board of Trustees, or Jimbo Wales) can impose decisions regardless of consensus.
Potential problems with voting include:
- You might miss the best solution (or the best compromise) because it wasn't one of the options.
- By polarizing discussion and raising the stakes, voting may contribute to a breakdown in civility and make it difficult for participants to assume good faith. A vote on a controversial issue is often extremely acrimonious.
- Voters often expect that a majority or supermajority will automatically win the argument, or that the result will be binding — which is not the case.
- Even when a straw poll is stated to be non-binding, sometimes people decide afterwards that they should nevertheless do what the majority wants, in effect retroactively treating the straw poll result as binding. While it is reasonable to ask other editors to consider majority opinion during the course of the debate, no straw poll may ever be used to force minority opinion editors to accept a majority opinion.
- If Wikipedia were to resolve issues through voting on them, people would be tempted to also use voting with respect to articles. People have been known to call a vote on whether or not a fact is true. We include text in articles based on such policies as verifiability and encyclopedicity, not based on whether the text is popular among voters.
Use of polls when discussing Wikipedia articles
On Wikipedia, we do not line up to cast ballots without discussion. In some cases, editors use straw polls during discussions of what material to include in various Wikipedia articles. Although such polls are occasionally used and sometimes helpful, their use is controversial. Where used, article straw polls should be developed in a way to assist in reaching true consensus, rather than in an attempt to silence an opposing opinion.
Straw poll guidelines
Editors considering an article-related straw poll must remember that polling should be used with care, and should not invoke straw polls prematurely. Note that straw polling cannot serve as a substitute for debate and consensus; that no straw poll is binding on editors who do not agree; and that polling may aggravate rather than resolve existing disputes.
Straw polls regarding article content are often inconclusive and sometimes highly contentious. In order to have a chance of being productive, editors must appreciate the following:
- The ultimate goal of any article discussion is consensus, and a straw poll is helpful only if it helps editors actually reach true consensus.
- For that reason, article straw polls are never binding, and editors who continue to disagree with a majority opinion may not be shut out from discussions simply because they are in the minority. Similarly, editors who appear to be in the majority have an obligation to continue discussions and attempts to reach true consensus.
- For the same reason, article straw polls should not be used prematurely. If it is clear from ongoing discussion that consensus has not been reached, a straw poll is unlikely to assist in forming consensus and may polarize opinions, preventing or delaying any consensus from forming.
- Similarly, if a straw poll is inconclusive, or if there is disagreement about whether the question itself was unfair, the poll and its results should simply be ignored.
- Once responses to a straw poll have begun, even minor changes to the phrasing of the poll are likely to result in an all out battle over whether the poll itself was fair. Consider proposing straw poll language several days prior to opening the actual poll to responses, and beginning the poll only once you have consensus on the precise question to be asked.
- Core principles, such as NPOV and article sourcing, are obviously not subject to straw polls. People have been known to vote on a fact, which is ultimately pointless.
- Editors should exercise extreme care in requesting that others participate in a straw poll. See votestacking and campaigning.
- The purpose of a straw poll is to stimulate discussion and consensus. Editors should evaluate the explanations that the participants in a straw poll offer, and should see if those explanations help to develop their own opinions or suggest compromise. In this context, a few well reasoned opinions may affect a debate much more than several unexplained votes for a different course.
- In the context of Wikipedia articles, straw polls are most helpful, if ever, in evaluating whether a consensus exists or in "testing the waters" of editor opinion among a few discrete choices such as two choices for an article's name. Even in these cases, straw polls may never be understood as creating a consensus, but merely as one tool in developing a mutual and voluntary consensus.
- Straw polls should not be used excessively. If a straw poll was called on an issue recently, there is usually no reason to call a second poll, even if you think that consensus may have changed or that the first poll was conducted unfairly. If you disagree with the "majority" opinion, simply remember that the straw poll is not binding and continue discussions.
- The words "vote" and "voting" have a variety of connotations, but they are commonly associated specifically with ballot-casting or majority voting. For that reason, the use of the words "vote" and "voting" might not be the best choice when describing Wikipedia processes. While technically correct, such references may contribute to the misconception that we use a system of majority or supermajority rule. Different terminology (e.g. "polling" and "commenting") may be preferable.
Deletion, moving and featuring
Wikipedia has several processes to deal with such things as deletion debates (e.g. WP:AFD), requested moves (e.g. WP:RM), and featured content (e.g. WP:FAC). These are sometimes wrongly assumed to be majority votes. Each of these processes is not decided based strictly on the number of people choosing one side or another, but on the strength of the arguments presented. Participants in these processes should therefore explain the reasons for their opinion, and should view and consider the explanations offered by others.
Because the point of these processes is to form consensus, it is preferable that people discuss the matter rather than simply voting - that is, people are encouraged to explain their reasonings, respond to others and possibly compromise, rather than signing a one-word opinion and not looking back. Attempting to "vote stack" such processes are ineffective and potentially disruptive, and "votes" without reasoning may carry no weight in the final interpretation.
Policy and guidelines
Wikipedia is not a democracy; policy and guidelines are not ratified through a vote. Although some editors have historically argued that policies and guidelines should be adopted by vote or majority opinion, Wikipidia policy clearly contradicts this opinion. Under the relevant policy, new policies and guidelines may be created by (1) codifying existing practice; (2) through community WP:CONSENSUS, or (3) as a result of a declaration from Jimmy Wales, the Board, or the Developers in appropriate cases.
As discussed above, straw polling may be helpful in some cases to confirm the existence of a consensus, or as a test of community opinion. However, because straw polling cannot create consensus, polling is rarely helpful in the development of policies or guidelines, and frequently counterproductive. Although straw polls and/or votes have been used in the adoption of a limited number of policies, including the three revert rule, and the older parts of Categories for speedy deletion, even in those these cases, the polls were put together carefully and only after discussing the matter for a month or more. No guideline has ever been enacted through a vote.
The aim of many guidelines is primarily to describe current practice, to help editors to understand how Wikipedia works. This means that it is not necessary, and in many cases unwise, to call a vote or straw poll on a proposed policy or guideline. If a proposal is not controversial, doing a headcount is not necessary; if a proposal is controversial, doing a headcount to see where the majority lies will not resolve the controversy, and may polarize it further. The controversy may spill onto the poll itself, causing debate on its mechanics. People tend to respond to ill-advised polls by voting against the poll or by adding a section for "voting is evil".
Once it has been decided by consensus to standardize an issue (e.g. template layout), it is likely there will be several suggestions for standards. Unless one of them is clearly preferred, an approval poll is recommended to select the best-liked standard. This is a way of helping to gauge which of several possible (often similar) versions has the most widespread support, so that the final version reflects consensus.
In some cases on Wikipedia, community polls are used to determine whether to trust editors with additional responsibilities, in particular requests for adminiship and elections for the arbitration committee. However, in both cases the poll results are subject to interpretation by the party who makes the decision (i.e. the bureaucrats or Jimbo). Historically, the party making the decision has considered the arguments made, the number of editors on each side of the issue, and any other relevant factors.
In these processes it is preferable if people discuss, ask questions of the candidate, and state their reasonings, rather than simply stating "yes" or "no" with no further comment. While the end result is often obvious based directly on counts of who said yea or nay, it is possible to sway people's opinions by applying solid reasoning and logic. Even so, people new to wikipedia are often confused, due to the strong resemblence between such structured discussion and a majority vote process, which they are not. There is no exact "target" percentage that forms the cutoff point, but few RfAs succeed with less than 75% support.
Changes to the MediaWiki software are made by the developers and are usually discussed on BugZilla. Some people are tempted to call a vote on feature requests on the assumption that the more people support a feature, the more likely the developers are to implement it. However, this is not generally the case, as the developers consider issues of feasibility and server load to be far more important.
Although arbitration is not a community process, it is listed here for the sake of completeness. The ArbCom follows a procedure of listing principles, findings of facts and remedies; individual arbiters discuss these issues and then vote for or against statements and resolutions. However, no 'vote' is final until the case is closed. Arbiters can change their positions as a result of discussions with fellow arbiters. In general, findings which attract opposition are reworded to address that opposition, with the aim of reaching a consensus view among the arbitrators. Nevertheless, Arbcom decisions are subject to simple-majority vote.