Voting on Standards and in Public Elections Is Hard, but Necessary Work

Letter from the Executive Director, October 2020

As the US prepares for the quadrennial election of its national leadership, it is important to reflect on the most fundamental element of a democracy and of consensus processes such as standards development: participation. You have to participate; each of you, and all of you. As leaders of a process that requires your involvement, we need to do as much as we can to make it easy for you to have your voices heard, but you need to engage as well so that we can hear your voices and perspectives.

In the US, voting has been at a steady, if disappointing, level of between 49% and 57% for the past 50 years, with three elections involving barely above 50% of the voting-age population. There has been a concerted effort to make voting more difficult, not less, in that time. Meanwhile, NISO voting engagement has also been modest at best. Contributing your voice to the voting process is a key benefit of membership, and not enough members take advantage of this right and responsibility. 

Participation isn’t easy. Sure, next month in the national election, you can show up and cast your ballot for your preferred candidate—and PLEASE DO—but how many of us do the hard work of researching our preferences all the way down the ballot? It takes time and effort to discern a preference for a local family court judge, a state representative, or a council member. While we might know some of these people personally, often this is not the case. Many turn to external signals or resources, often because information about the candidates is not easily accessible .

This is analogous to the work required of reviewing and balloting standards. It is difficult work, and there is a lot of information to consider when making your decision. You have to develop familiarity with the document and consider the state of adjacent technology. Has the environment changed sufficiently enough that the standard isn’t meeting the needs that it once did? Are the dependencies up to date? The world marches on, as does the technological environment. For new work, has the group that developed the draft explored the potential implications and consequences of their proposed solution? Did the group take into account those voices who, for whatever reason, weren’t able to participate in the development process? 

We at NISO are considering ways we can make the process more informative, more relevant, and more engaging. (You know, because standards work can be exciting!) But much like your local election board, there is only so much we can do. NISO has launched a strategic initiative to expand our community, and diversity and inclusion are important elements of that process. A more diverse chorus of voices will enhance the value of a communal effort. We can simplify the voting mechanisms, and we can improve access to information about the items on the ballot. We also recognize that no company or individual is interested in every one of our projects—because of the diversity of our portfolio and of our community. How can we allow for more selective engagement, where members’ interests most align with our activities? In the end, though, all of our behind-the-scenes efforts still require action from our members. You have to put in the effort before you vote and then take that initiative over the finish line.  

We all have so much to do, particularly in this age, with its competing demands on our time—from homeschooling, to self-provided tech-support, to the challenges of just getting through our day-to-day lives amid a pandemic. Yet, we have to find the time to engage in those civic activities that support our collective environment, be it the local PTA or library friends group, orthe information community and standards work that NISO supports. We all need that extra spare moment of thoughtful contemplation, even at a time when we might have less ability to provide it. We recognize how difficult it is to ask one more thing of you all. I certainly feel it. But I also recognize, and I encourage you to as well, the value that results from the consensus process. That process might be approving the next NISO standard, or it might be selecting the next leader of our country. Each decision of yours can have a profound impact, but you need to contribute your vote in the process to bring that impact to life.


Todd Carpenter
Executive Director, NISO