Reflecting on the changes to Drupal Association election voter eligibility

By Ryan, 13 September, 2020
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The Drupal Association (D.A.) Board decided in May to update the eligibility criteria for voting in the election of At-Large Directors of the D.A. These are the members of the Board whose purpose is to “reflect and represent the Drupal community at large,” and their election is to be “by the community” and dependent on “[ratification] by the rest of the Board.” We changed the voter eligibility criteria for these elections from requiring community members to have logged in to in the year prior to nominations opening to requiring them to have an active D.A. Membership prior to the start of voting.

As we wrote in our statement about this resolution, we believe we failed as a Board to consider how to engage the community and communicate the change proactively. I personally endeavored to answer as many questions as I could in various threads on Twitter, but Twitter is a poor place for long answers, nuance, or organized communication. As such, I solicited specific questions I could answer in this post as a member of the Board who approved the resolution.

A word before I dive in: this post contains my personal recollections of fact and statements of opinion, and I’m not speaking herein on behalf of the full Board. We’re fifteen different individuals with unique perspectives on this discussion and virtually every topic we approach. In places where I’m answering questions of fact, I ask the reader to be gracious - just because I’m stating how something occurred (e.g. “neither the discussion nor the final resolution were controversial to the Board”) doesn’t mean I or the Board don’t understand competing opinions or wouldn’t accept other points of view as legitimate alternatives.

I also wish I could have prepared this post faster, but finding a solid 8 hours to give to the task has proven difficult. My family was gracious to give me most of this Saturday for it, and while I'm sure I won't satisfy every critic, I hope the post is received as my honest attempt to plainly, directly answer your questions.

Ok, diving in!

I’m going to follow Sally Young’s list of questions as a general outline and try to address as many questions or concerns as I can that were raised in the various Twitter threads by other community members.

1. What was the impetus for the change being tabled?

I didn’t write the initial proposal and can’t recall which specific conversation would have birthed it. However, I believe the resolution was generally a byproduct of recurring conversations at Board meetings about continuing to evolve the D.A. and its Board in pursuit of its mission. These conversations include comparative analysis, advice and counsel from outside experts, and books and reference material designed to help organizations like ours mature.

You can see the results of these conversations in who we hire to be Executive Director, who we recruit to serve on the Board, how we work to diversify our staff, programs, and revenue, and how we clarify who our stakeholders are and how we serve them. These conversations have included questions about the meaning and purpose of both individual and organizational supporters of the D.A., and as far as I can recall, our discussions on the topic of the resolution were primarily a matter of alignment - that people who desire a say in who should lead the organization, or who desire to serve as its leaders, ought to be individually committed to the organization through a D.A. Membership.

I understand there are people who conscientiously object to D.A. Membership for a variety of reasons, including its structure, its prior decisions or actions, its current programs, or a sense that contribution “ought to be enough.” While I wish they were able to find common cause and become advocates for the D.A. as the primary organization responsible for the Drupal community’s infrastructure, I don’t begrudge them their abstention. I would likely even agree with them on various critiques of the D.A. - nobody believes it's perfect! I just don’t believe people who intentionally refuse D.A. Membership or who believe the D.A. as it is shouldn’t even exist must be given a say in who leads it.

(Note: lest I be accused of saying such people don’t matter, please understand that I am talking about the leadership specifically of the D.A., which is distinct from but exists to serve the Drupal community at large. You can be a contributor to the project and a leader in the community without believing in or respecting the D.A. While I might disagree with your position, it wouldn’t make me respect you or value your contributions any less, nor would I expect the D.A. not to work hard to serve you. By nature it serves the whole community, and in many areas it solicits guidance and feedback from a wide variety of individuals, working groups, committees, etc. to attempt to do so even better.)

To Sally’s follow-up questions on this point regarding specific expectations for engagement or data-driven analysis, all I can say, even if it’s unsatisfying, is this wasn’t a data-driven decision. We saw it as correcting a misalignment and trust the staff of the D.A. to find new ways to activate and empower individuals who maintain a D.A. Membership, including those who perhaps through this very discussion engage the D.A. for the first time.

2. What was the process of this being proposed?

The resolution was presented to the Board for discussion at our meeting in May. From my memory, we had previously discussed this topic at an earlier strategy meeting, so I don’t believe it was a surprise to anyone or that anyone expressed concerns with respect to the text of the resolution itself. We approved it by the unanimous consent of all those present, including myself (who previously served as an At-Large Director) and our two currently serving At-Large Directors.

3. What percentage of people who voted in the previous election were D.A. members?

Unfortunately, I don’t know the answer to this, and I can’t say off the top of my head what it would take to find out (i.e. do we have the data in the right shape and places to run such a query?). I’m sure a significant percentage of voters were not D.A. members, because only a small fraction of all eligible voters under the prior criteria were D.A. Members. (I do expect D.A. Members were overrepresented in the vote; I'd love to see the actual statistics on this, too.)

That said, I do know that we have significantly more Individual Members of the D.A. than we have had participants in any recent election. I gathered the statistics from the last 4 elections from the D.A. blog, and the numbers aren’t particularly encouraging. (I’ll save my reflections on the trend for another post; trying to stay focused here...) We have over 2,900 Individual Members in our directory, but we have averaged only 1,345 voters over the last four elections with an average turnout of only 1.59% of eligible voters.

I’m very curious to see the numbers from the upcoming election.

4. [With respect to the text of the by-laws stating the corporation has no members,] when an individual signs up for a membership, what status are they within the organization?

(Let me state the obvious here: I am not a lawyer or an expert in nonprofit law. While I consulted a lawyer to understand the meaning of our by-laws on these points, the following still just reflects my personal understanding … i.e. I could be stating something incorrectly, apologies in advance.)

The D.A. is a board driven organization with a self-perpetuating board as opposed to a member driven organization where members directly elect the organization’s leaders. As stated in our by-laws, the Board of Directors “exercise or direct the exercise of all corporate powers,” and with respect to our community elections, the Board must ratify the winners before they become part of the Board.

I wasn’t party to the creation of the D.A. to speak to why this specific structure was chosen, but I’ve read various articles on the advantages and disadvantages of each. I believe our structure gives us room to think more strategically / long term, as our nominations process allows us to ensure continuity of purpose year over year, but it also centralizes decision making in a way that may make some stakeholders unhappy. (This particular debate is a case in point.)

The D.A. doesn’t have members who vote for directors; we have a membership of people from all over the world who have an interest in the success of the Association’s mission, somewhat similar to other nonprofits like NPR. (As one example, you can refer to the membership page of the nonprofit supporting public radio in South Carolina.) I personally think we’ll need to rename the “Drupal Association Membership” to clarify this distinction, finding a term that is not semantically overloaded, in much the same way that we have to be careful about words like “Partner” or “Affiliate”.

In short, a person’s “status in the organization” is unchanged when they sign up for a D.A. Membership, but they do receive a variety of benefits for joining.

5. [With respect to the text of the by-laws describing the nature of At-Large Directors and their election process,] will this be changed?

I’m not sure if Sally means the name, “At-Large Directors”, or the text related to the election process. I’ll answer each one in turn just in case, as other folks have echoed these questions in various Twitter threads.

First, will we rename At-Large Directors?

The answer to that is no, they have and will continue to “reflect and represent the Drupal community at large,” and as such will still be referred to as “At-Large Directors.” Speaking from personal experience, when I served as an At-Large Director, my input was regularly, directly solicited on a variety of community impacting topics. I expect this to continue to be the case.

I see two basic objections to this position:

On the one hand, some people believe every member of the Drupal Association Board ought to be directly elected by members of the nonprofit, and as such “At-Large Director” was a misnomer even before we made this change. I understand this critique, but I personally consider our structure to be a foregone conclusion and theorizing about “how it could have been” to be interesting but impractical. (Speaking of “how it could have been,” imagine if the suggestion to use Certified to Rock for qualification had gained traction…)

On the other hand, some people believe that restricting eligible voters in these elections to people who maintain D.A. Memberships means the Directors cannot be described as representatives of “the Drupal community at large.” I think there’s merit to this point but that there’s room for disagreement, especially in light of historical precedent.

Our by-laws are ambiguous about what constitutes the “community” with respect to elections, and even our earliest discussions about elections demonstrate the debate was about what the criteria ought to be beyond simple self-identification as a member of the Drupal community. Notes from that era specifically ask the question, “Who is the Drupal community we're trying to capture in our voting eligibility criteria?”

In other words, from the very beginning, our debate hasn’t been about how to maximally define “community” but about how to define “community” in a way that is clear, concrete, and ensures that everyone who does vote is inarguably part of the community. After those initial discussions, D.A. Memberships and user accounts were the two final criteria being considered for the election, and both were described as “not remotely represent[ing] the ENTIRE community.” No one objected then that that meant the directors could not be called “At-Large Directors” as a result. That same post also reflected an understanding “that this definition could shift over time,” including in a hypothetical future where we provided a “sliding scale cost for membership, or free memberships to certain subsets of the community.”

I revisit this history for a couple reasons. It demonstrates that the decision of the Board in May was very much in line with the earliest thinking of the Drupal community on this topic, and it comes at a point after we’ve long provided a sliding scale for the Individual Membership price and in conjunction with a policy that allows anyone to request a free Membership.

Even more poignant, from a process standpoint, it’s clear that from the very beginning the D.A. Board was leading the process. The election committee tasked with defining election policies was constituted by the Board, populated by the Board, reported to the Board, and produced recommendations that required Board approval prior to the first election. If Board leadership wasn’t illegitimate then, it isn’t today. That said, even if our decision was both within our realm of responsibility and in keeping with the spirit and positions of previous discussions, I still very much agree with the Board statement that we should have discussed and defined a communications strategy at the time we made it.

Going back to the second part of question 5, will we revise the by-laws with respect to the election process?

On this point, my current answer is I’m not sure but probably. I don’t believe the changed criteria conflicts with the by-laws any more than the prior criteria did - in either case, we’re restricting who, among all the people in the world who might consider themselves part of the Drupal community, is actually eligible to vote.

I do think we should consider amending the by-laws to point to a definitive policy document that addresses both how we determine voter eligibility and what it means for the Board to ratify an elected candidate.

6. Do the [new rules] create a different kind of barrier and why?

Yes, the new rules create a different kind of barrier, no bones about it. I know others disagree, but I don’t personally find the new criteria particularly more onerous than the old criteria.

Additionally, the new criteria create more room for people to participate under certain conditions, because eligibility is no longer determined based on when you last logged in to I know that’s a “simple” requirement, but it’s also fairly arbitrary. Even if you’d participated in Drupal events or worked at a Drupal agency, if you hadn’t created an account until after nominations opened or logged in to an existing account in the year prior to that date, you were ineligible to vote and without recourse to become eligible. Under the new criteria, you simply must log in or create an account and then become a D.A. Member at any point before the election in order to participate. These may be freely acquired by those who cannot afford the variable price fee or whose organizations do not already provide them an Individual Membership.

That answers the “what has changed” and as to the “why”, as I stated above, I believe the new criteria better align voter eligibility with the purpose of the vote. You are electing a Director of the D.A., which is a distinct entity within the Drupal community, and as such it’s more relevant whether or not you have a D.A. Membership than whether or not you have logged in to in the year prior to nominations opening for a new election.

7. What effect will this [barrier] have on under represented groups?

I think its impact will be negligible but likely impossible to quantify. As I pointed out above, even in 2012, election discussions foresaw a shift in eligibility criteria, especially after the means of acquiring a D.A. Membership expanded and / or became more accessible. I understand some consider having to ask for a free Membership to be an impediment unto itself, but I’m not convinced this will be a practical barrier in the context of our community, which includes many such scholarships, grants, sponsorships, etc. and a no-questions, no-shame based approach to the awarding of these.

Furthermore, what Pedro Cambra writes in his self-nomination is not entirely correct, that “You can still vote even if you’re not a member of the Drupal Association.” I understand the intent of this heading, but the D.A. is literally activating a D.A. Membership upon request, with all the benefits that come with it, not just doling out voting rights. It is not a lesser Membership; there is no asterisk beside the badge on grantees’ user profiles. They are members, and upon becoming members, they are eligible to vote.

(Yes, as Sally points out, one person was directed to the normal registration form after requesting a D.A. Membership; this was an unfortunate mistake that was rectified the next day. I asked about it as soon as it was brought to my attention - a supporting staff member had not immediately understood the nature of the request. It was corrected, the process was amended to prevent further mistakes, and ultimately no one who has requested a membership has been denied one.)

I remain confident that anyone who wants to participate in this election will be able to do so, and I appreciate the efforts of the D.A. staff to communicate the changes in a variety of channels and generally improve the process for helping the community get to know their nominees. Might someone still be surprised come election day? There’s always a chance, but I don’t consider it any greater a chance with the new criteria than with the old.

8. Did the Association consider adding a free option to its regular membership sign up form?

I do not know the answer to this question or the follow-ups. I can only say I wasn’t party to any such conversation, nor have I heard of any taking place.

Personally speaking, I would expect such decisions to be left to the Executive Director and the D.A. staff. The Board passes resolutions and works with the Executive Director at a higher level to prepare budgets, organize priorities, plan the organization’s strategy, etc. but leaves the implementation details up to her and the staff. This goes for any number of areas of the Association's operations, not just the specifics of managing these elections, and the staff are always careful, competent, and eager to do right by the community in their work.

In closing...

I've been a part of the community since 2006 and a part of the D.A. Board since 2017. I first met other members of the Drupal community in person at DrupalCon Barcelona 2007, and I met my partners and many of my team members at Commerce Guys and Centarro through subsequent DrupalCons. I grew my career through contributions on The Drupal Association undergirds these things today, and as such, I strongly believe in the D.A. and its mission, want it to succeed, and want as many people as possible to join me in supporting it.

We do have a strong roster of candidates in the current election, and voting for the next At-Large Director begins on Tuesday, September 15th. I encourage you to learn more about the candidates and secure your D.A. Membership by September 14th in order to join me in this upcoming election.


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