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Context

This post is inspired by two controversies that arose during the nomination phase of the current Stack Overflow moderator election. One of them pertains to allegations of plagiarism by one of the candidates in their responses to the moderator questionnaire, and the other to allegations of gaming the election system via a last-minute submission by one of the candidates.

This post is related to this proposal by TylerH, which I believe addresses the second case, but not the first.

I'm also responding to this answer by nvoigt suggesting there's a problem with the questionnaire questions themselves.

Proposed solution

Splitting the nomination phase into two:

  1. A private nomination phase, where candidates submit their nomination and answers to the moderator questionnaire privately, have the ability to edit their nomination post as much as they like, but are unable to see anyone else's nomination. We could still make public the list of candidates nominating themselves, but keep information like candidate score or questionnaire private.
  2. A public phase, where the nomination is closed, the list of nominees is locked in, their answers to the questionnaire are made public and no longer editable (or editable with the usual edit history present for all to see), and the community is given the opportunity to discuss each of the nominations in the comments.

This ensures all candidates get the same amount of time to have their nomination challenged or endorsed by community members in the comments, so there can be no allegations of impropriety when it comes to late submissions.

This would also ensure the candidates can't see each other's answers until after they've all been submitted and locked in, which would reduce the likelihood of candidates drawing inspiration from each other, which would hopefully lead to more original answers to the questionnaire, or at least make it easier to test nvoigt's assertion that the problem lies with the questionnaires themselves.

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    You'll probably have to address the increased length of the full election this would cause. Or discuss how long each phase should be. Oct 21, 2021 at 17:45
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    Are you trying to make elections fair, just like they are in real life?
    – rene
    Oct 21, 2021 at 17:46
  • @rene Just trying to make them fairer in response to some legitimate issues of fairness that seem to have arisen in the current election on SO. I'm not sure how this suggestion compares to real life election nominations. I do find these issues distract from what would otherwise be a great election with a pool of great candidates, who deserve to be afforded the benefit of the doubt when it comes to things like when they submit their application and the originality of their answers. Hopefully this solution addresses both of those problems, and benefits both the community and our mod hopefuls. Oct 21, 2021 at 18:06
  • @MadScientist That's a legitimate point that I have seen raised elsewhere on election feature requests. Candidates need a certain amount of time after the questionnaire is finalized in Phase 0 to put together their nomination. I do think an argument could be made for splitting up the duration of the current nomination phase rather than lengthening the full election, as the existing nomination phase duration encompasses both the time it takes for candidates to submit their nomination and for the community to respond to it. Oct 21, 2021 at 18:21
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    "alleged scandals" maybe? Oct 21, 2021 at 18:31
  • @P.Mort.-forgotClayShirky_q Or controversies? Does the word scandal imply the allegations in question have been proven? I'm not trying to imply either party in those cases is guilty, just that these issues regarding some potential impropriety have come up and I believe this feature request could do something to prevent them coming up again in the future. Maybe this would have worked better as a self-answered discussion question in hindsight... Oct 21, 2021 at 18:44
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    Controversies would be a better word, yes. Scandal implies that something scandalous happened, but controversy could be either a scandal or people making a mountain out of a molehill. Oct 21, 2021 at 18:45
  • @Randal'Thor Fair enough, I've edited it to controversies, as the votes on both questions are pretty polarized. I think it might also make it clearer that the goal here is to reduce controversy surrounding fairness of the nomination process or originality of answers. Oct 21, 2021 at 18:51

4 Answers 4

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I'm not a fan of this. Mostly because having a private nomination phase won't prevent bad candidates from nominating. Plagiarism and last-minute nominations are mostly 'people problems', they're a sign a candidate might not be a good moderator. It's in my opinion better that these things come to light the way they do: They give important information about a candidate's suitability as a moderator.

Making the system too 'fool-proof' will hide those signs of unsuitability. Moderators are expected to behave according to certain standards, and I'd like to see them do so of their own accord and not because the election system forces them to do so. (Mostly because I know the mod tools and they aren't all fool-proofed either, and soft skills can't be enforced by the site either)

The SO elections I've seen, always had some kind of drama attached to them, if I recall correctly, last year it was an ex-moderator running again and changing her username mid-election. It was followed with similar discussions: Should this be allowed, is this okay to do, should the system block it? If we're going to change the way elections work every year just because some Stack Overflow nominees can't behave themselves the way the community likes to see them behave, well... In the end, you'll end up with every candidate presenting as a perfect fit because the system hides all the potential flaws you should also be looking for in a future moderator.

Another reason I personally like seeing the questionnaire and entire nominations immediately, is that it allows for a kind of vetting: Are the people that have nominated so far capable enough? Do I think I or someone else can do better than them, so should I throw my hat in the ring/encourage someone else to? It's very personal, but I'd rather not hide nominations and questionnaires, only to regret doing or not doing something later just because I didn't have all the information available to me.

But mostly, it's just me wanting to see people act 'properly' of their own accord, and not because a system forces them to.

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    There would still be the public phase to assess if the candidates act properly of their own accord. Having the answering of the questionnaire be blind at least gives a benchmark of where a candidate stands on each particular issue, making it that much easier to see how much they hold to their convictions, or how strongly they hold to their convictions when faced with the pressure of the community. I don't really have a response to the vetting situation you're describing, other than to say the list of who has nominated can still be public without seeing their responses to the questionnaire. Oct 21, 2021 at 19:38
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    @MihaiChelaru I fundamentally disagree that your suggested public phase allows for as much opportunity to see how people behave as the current one does. As soon as you put in measures to avoid something, you're limiting people's chances to prove they can act properly on their own. If you make it so that people can't plagiarize and they can't avoid the period where people can comment on their nomination, then you can no longer see people do those two things and take it into account when voting. An election is about much more than seeing someone's questionnaire and putting pressure on them.
    – Tinkeringbell Mod
    Oct 21, 2021 at 20:06
  • And yes, I noticed the suggestion of showing who nominated but not the questionnaire, I personally still find that dissatisfactory for reasons explained above. How someone fills in their questionnaire is something I take into account when doing the vetting I described above.
    – Tinkeringbell Mod
    Oct 21, 2021 at 20:09
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    Maybe there's still a way to get the best of both worlds here, although it adds a ton of complexity to the process. What if you can lock in a tentative nomination and afterwards see who else is running against you? Then you can choose to simply not go forward if you feel others are adequate, or if you want to "vet" them by running against them, simply proceed? I think there's still plenty of room for people to plagiarize or answer questions from the community poorly, without compromising fairness. That argument boils down to "keep the system flawed so we can root out those who exploit it." Oct 21, 2021 at 20:34
  • @MihaiChelaru I just don't see the current system as unfair or flawed, you do. That's why you wrote a question and I wrote an answer... Plagiarism and last second nominations aren't regularly occuring good faith mistakes in almost every election, accidentally encouraged by a flawed and unfair system. So yes, I'd rather be able to root out those that exploit a system than making that system less exploitable, as these aren't innocent mistakes the system should prevent in order to be fair or unflawed.
    – Tinkeringbell Mod
    Oct 21, 2021 at 20:43
  • Well, those mistakes are an extreme manifestation of a simple bias that exists in the way the current nominations are carried out. The actual problem is: not everyone spends the same time in the nomination phase, and not everyone's answers are posted at the same time, so some people can draw inspiration from others before even posting their initial take on each question. You may see this as a fair system because someone who blatantly plagiarizes or who nominates themselves in the literal last minute will be outed and punished, but those are two very extreme cases. What about all the others? Oct 21, 2021 at 20:51
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    @MihaiChelarun What about them? Well, they can make their own decisions. If you're afraid of missing out, you can nominate as soon as the nominations open and you can get as much interaction (both endorsements, questions and criticism) as time allows, or take some time... I've never noticed elections to suffer from a "fastest gun in the west syndrome", where the first people to nominate are the ones to always get elected. Though hard data may prove me wrong there. But then, data first before calling things unfair and in need of fixing.
    – Tinkeringbell Mod
    Oct 21, 2021 at 20:59
  • Note that questionnaires are often the same across elections and sites too, so if you really want to avoid people 'drawing inspiration from others', your blind nomination phase is fixing... Exactly nothing in that department, unless the site and the questions massively change each year. Yes, most people who nominate know the 'desired' answers, but hopefully they didn't just learn them 10 seconds ago from other nominees(and plagiarize them) but they've been around and seen previous elections, questions and meta discussions to draw their inspiration from.
    – Tinkeringbell Mod
    Oct 21, 2021 at 21:02
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    In response to your second comment, this was not true in the case of this year's Stack Overflow election questionnaire where 8 of the questions were proposed and voted on by the community. It's not so much about preventing plagiarism as making the question irrelevant for the first version of the questionnaire that candidates put out. Surely they can later edit their answers to include something from others, but it will be reflected in the post's edit history. Not all inspiration people draw is as obvious as word-for-word copy/pasting. Oct 21, 2021 at 22:27
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    Re: fastest gun in the west, I would ask why is it then that candidates are randomly ordered on the page, rather than the order in which they nominated themselves? I'd imagine it's to eliminate any bias towards the candidate at the top of the page, assuming people don't scroll down to see all the entries. This is something where your solution of nominating oneself as soon as the nomination opens would also apply, yet the order is randomized. Also don't forget later nominees can see not just the answers but the community's responses and challenges to those answers. Oct 21, 2021 at 22:44
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A long time ago I argued for something similar, but I didn't get anywhere with it. The major sticking point as far as I remember was that this would increase the duration of the election, and the current duration is already as long as it should be.

One interesting thing that changes since then is that primaries seem much less common today, even on Stack Overflow. If a primary happens, the election is prolonged by 7 days. So if we need to gain some time to make this change, I think we should take it from the potential primary.

The primary was always a bit weird, and I don't think it serves any purpose anymore. If the number of candidates gets higher than 10 you can alternatively apply stricter filters e.g. based on moderation badges/candidate score. That's not ideal, but elections with 30 candidates (the actual maximum before the primary) are probably not fair either. Or just increase the number of possible candidates without a primary, though maybe not to 30.

Without a primary the current length of an election is 14 days. Having the nomination phase and the public comment phase at 7 days each would put us back to the 21 days with a primary. I would probably prefer to reduce both phases a bit to keep this closer to the 14 days. Something like 4 days nomination and 4 days public comments, putting us at 15 days total.

I don't think this is a huge issue in general, but it is a flaw in the election system and it's seriously annoying when someone appears to or actually exploits it. It leads to additional drama that detracts from the actual election. So I would prefer to have this fixed to keep the attention during the election where it belongs.

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    Elections are not prolonged if a primary happens. The election phase is shortened so the whole election is the same length (4 primary + 4 election vs. 8 election). The only case where elections are prolonged is if there aren't enough nominees to make the election competitive (full elections) or no nominees at all (pro tem elections), in which case the nomination period is extended by 7 days. Oct 21, 2021 at 18:50
  • @SonictheAnonymousHedgehog are you sure about that, or has that changed at some point? Oct 21, 2021 at 19:20
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    It hasn't changed since at least March 2013: "The Nomination Phase occupies the first seven days. Then, the last 8 days are either divided between the Primary and the Election, or just are the Election as a whole. This process is aimed to keep consistency in the process and also to prevent the process from being exceedingly prolonged because of some extra people nominating." Oct 21, 2021 at 19:22
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I can't imagine anyone intentionally posting a nomination in the last minute. I can imagine being so busy with things that I forget ten minutes before the deadline, and rushing in a nomination with minutes to spare. Admittedly, splitting up these periods might have helped, but only in terms of candidates having more time in general to do/plan their election phases.

Also for full disclosure - My initial nomination was rushed, written on a phone with worse than dialup speeds and read

This is a little shorter than I would like since I'm currently in India, without access to a PC. I'm pretty sure I need no introduction to many of you - I'm currently a mod pro tempore at software recommendations, in the top ten all time users, with over a thousand flags and I prop up the bar on chat.

This was a terrible nomination, but it was what I could squeeze in initially (and I improved it later). I also won that election - and I leave it to the reader to judge if that was a mistake.

In the second case the candidate in question took responsibility for his actions, as he should. Sometimes folks make mistakes - and that's part of growth as a person. It was brought up on meta, discussed and actions were taken.

I don't particularly see a 'failure' in the current system.

Fundamentally - I would feel the 'worth' of a moderator is both as an aggregate of their actions before election, and how the use (or don't use) their abilities. The elections are merely and opportunity for people to stand up if they feel it's something they want to do - and folks who are good moderator material can contribute, even if they don't win an election. While the position and the additional abilities augment what I can do as a moderator, I've often found it doesn't change the fundamental value of the person to the community. The extra time doesn't really help in 'better' decision making more than what one has done, and has been seen to do in the community over time.

I'd also say the discussions on meta, though painful and somewhat messy - is exactly the 'broader' system of how we do things at work. Folks bring up issues, it's discussed and in both cases there seems a clear resolution to the problems brought up.

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The only reason I can think of off the top of my head that nominations should be private for a period is to allow the company to reject nominations that are problematic for some readers without humiliating the nominee in front of the community.

In light of the issues around the 2021 election on ELL, I am a bit more supportive of the company and current site mod team knowing who has nominated themselves prior to the community at large knowing. Maybe it would have enabled the issues around a particular nomination to have been resolved before the election.

I still don't think it's a good idea to prevent all updates to the post that is a candidate's most visible way to communicate with voters. I could accept a compromise and say "you can only add to it", but I think it wouldn't add much value over just letting candidates edit.

I want candidates to be able to update their posts in response to questions and feedback from the community, not have all of that buried in comments. I don't think making candidates write their nomination posts without knowing what other people are writing would make the election process better. I want candidates to compete with each other and to differentiate themselves from the other nominees and they can't do that without seeing what other candidates are asserting.

The people who nominate early and respond to questions and clarify their positions on things have an advantage over last minute candidates who aren't that engaged (at least when it comes to my vote). I think waiting until the last minute to put in a nomination is a non-issue. Deciding to run for moderator can require a lot of thought. Sometimes seeing how other candidates are planning to moderate can make someone want to offer an alternative when they hadn't initially planned on standing for the position.

We can change our votes as often as we like prior to the deadline, so discussion of a candidate's qualifications should not stop once voting starts. Candidates should be allowed to campaign right up until the end of voting. Nomination posts aren't contracts or requirements documents that need to be settled before we agree to them. If we could follow elections we could get notified of updates to a candidate's nomination post and adjust our votes accordingly.

The plagiarism thing does not merit a change to the election process. It is easily detected and corrected. In my opinion, it would disqualify a candidate from being a moderator. Communication is a very important part of moderation. If someone isn't comfortable enough expressing their ideas in English without copying phrasing from other people, I don't think I could in good conscience vote for them to be a moderator.

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  • To your first point, I suppose that's an additional benefit to this suggestion I had not considered. I response to your suggestion that candidates should be able to edit their nominations in response to feedback, I did include the possibility of making their questionnaires editable in the public phase, with an edit history. This at least lets us see their first take on the subject, blind to what everyone else was saying. It's an additional data point we currently cannot see, as any candidate who posts after another has the benefit of seeing their peer's answers. Oct 21, 2021 at 18:26
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    @MihaiChelaru I don't want candidates to be blind to what other candidates are saying. I think that would actually be a bad thing. Elections are a political competition, not a science competition. It's not about pure ideas in someone's head; it's about how they interact with the community and their perspective.
    – ColleenV
    Oct 21, 2021 at 18:27
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    They're only blind while answering the questions for the first time. We can see where they stand on each particular issue, and then once the discussion opens up, they're completely able to change their minds about something or compete with one another. Political parties also have some kind of platform where they outline how they would tackle key issues. This solution only addresses having a level playing field to start from. What they do from there is not what's being proposed. Oct 21, 2021 at 18:46
  • @MihaiChelaru I think that's a bad idea. What if someone reads the nomination statements and realizes that none of the candidates are who they want to be mod and want to run for moderator themselves? It is not helpful in elections to have candidates stake out a position without knowledge of what other candidates have staked out. People don't exist in a vacuum. What other people say and think can help us solidify what we think and believe. We aren't talking about political parties. We're talking about individual candidates who are being elected to make judgement calls.
    – ColleenV
    Oct 21, 2021 at 18:52
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    They're only staking out their initial position before the discussion begins. I personally would like to see what people can come up with on their own first, and then how they defend or evolve those ideas when interacting. Mods don't exist in a vacuum, but they are expected to make a lot of judgment calls on their own. Let me ask you this: you were a mod, how many of the individual judgment calls that you made over your career were discussed with someone else? How many times did people call into question decisions you made on your own, without seeing what someone else would have done first? Oct 21, 2021 at 19:08
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    @MihaiChelaru You seem to assume that everyone knows when the election starts that they want to be a mod. Some people don't know until they see who else is running and what they have to say and how different it is from how they would do it. I moderated on a small site and three of us discussed the best way to handle things often. We all had slightly different perspectives and working together kept things consistent. Here's my questionnaire from when I ran, and I did refer to other people's opinions and how they informed my own.
    – ColleenV
    Oct 21, 2021 at 19:20
  • You could still refer to other people's opinions as an edit to your nomination, while preserving the fact that it might have changed your opinion on a particular topic, or enhanced your answer. You had the integrity to give attribution in your questionnaire when ideas you agreed with were not your own. Suppose you have a view on moderation that's shared by others. Would you not prefer to be able to have it on record that you came up with it yourself, uninfluenced by others, or would you prefer to be subject to accusations you copied someone else's answer because they answered first? Oct 21, 2021 at 19:47
  • Because we're trying to use that bit of text representing their moderation style to decide on whether to vote for them or not. Their answers to those questions are influenced by every interaction they had previous to writing that questionnaire while moderating the site as a regular user. What's wrong with having someone think through those answers on their own first? When you interview someone for a job to see if they're qualified, do you not get them to first independently answer a question with no help before you engage them in a discussion and challenge what they say? Oct 21, 2021 at 20:05
  • Forcing them to decide to run is a side effect of this form of nomination. I think it's something that has to be weighed against the proposed benefits of the solution here. The current nomination process is the one and only test that candidates go through before the election phase. I respectfully disagree completely with your opinions on the value of looking at independent work, both to assess sincerity and depth of conviction, as well as competence. It provides an unbiased starting point that I believe ultimately benefits everyone equally, unlike the current system. Oct 21, 2021 at 20:29
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    Regarding your first paragraph, the entire Stack Overflow moderation team is firmly agreed that this is something which should never happen. Neither the company nor the existing mod team should be "pre-screening" candidates and rejecting them out of hand. The only reason we would retract a nomination would be clear and compelling evidence of directly breaking the rules, which does not require (and cannot even be accomplished with) pre-screening.
    – Cody Gray
    Oct 22, 2021 at 6:14
  • @CodyGray I'm not suggesting a pre-screening should be implemented, or even that there should be a private nomination phase. That was just the only reason I could think of to make the initial nomination private. What if an user known to be under 18 nominated themselves? I don't know what sort of automated checks are in place to prevent users who can't be moderators from nominating themselves, but it wouldn't hurt to verify that a nomination met all the the requirements prior to making it public.
    – ColleenV
    Oct 22, 2021 at 13:08

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