Neutral votes count
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Many decisions are made via polls when a reasonable community consensus cannot be reached. Often these polls are presented as a false dichotomy. When confronted with only support or oppose options, when there may be multiple possible solutions, community members may prefer to express their opinion as Neutral. When tallying results for polls these 'votes' should be counted in totals.
In an imaginary straw poll of 10 individuals, with the following break-down:
- Yes - 4 votes
- Neutral - 3 votes
- No - 3 votes
The issue should fail. 40% of those expressing any opinion voted in favour, 30% opposed, and 30% were neutral regarding the specific proposal. Less than 50% of those expressing an opinion were in favour of the proposal.
Silencing expressed opinions
By disregarding neutral votes, vote talliers effectively silence a portion of the community. Neutral voters tend to express cogent arguments for their choice, in part because supporters of the other options often ask them to defend their neutral position. Yet the talliers generally accept without comment or question votes which do not present any justification but either support or oppose the proposal.
In the example poll, when neutral votes are ignored the issue passes with 57% Yes and 43% No. If one of the No voices switched to a Yes, a tally of 5-3-2, the vote would pass a super-majority requirement of 2/3 (71% Yes to 29% No), even though the actual percentage of opinions expressed would only be 50% (which, again, would fail a strict majority vote as it is not 50% + 1 vote.) The neutral votes in the example straw poll, when counted, actually decide the issue.
Nuance and context
Every poll has a disagreement at its heart, and may be intended to polarize the community rather than to reach consensus. It is the (usually unwelcome) task of the tallier to present a judgement on the results of a poll which will allow the community to get back to work on the issue in question, hopefully without offending any position in the discussion enough to cause users to end or reduce their involvement. Users who take the time to consider the issue, express their Neutral opinion, and are then ignored in results are at least as likely as others to be offended - perhaps more so.
The judge should attempt to acknowledge neutral votes in their closure of polls, and account for their statistical significance in the results, knowing that in some cases reaching a definitive decision is more useful than being fairly representative.