As the Math Overflow community grows, so does the load on our moderator team. The existing staff is doing an excellent job, and in order to keep up the good work, they've requested a few more sets of hands. Therefore, the 2013 Community Moderator Election is now underway!

Community moderator elections have three phases:

  1. Nomination phase
  2. Primary phase
  3. Election phase

Most elections take between two and three weeks, but this depends on how many candidates there are.

Because MathOverflow has its own traditions, the nomination phase is handled slightly differently from other network sites. Users are encouraged to nominate others to become moderators. Visit this meta question to nominate someone or to see if you have been nominated!

Please visit the official election page at


for more detail, and to participate!

If you have general questions about the election process, or questions for moderator candidates, feel free to ask them here on meta -- just make sure your questions are tagged .

  • 7
    $\begingroup$ The wording, "The existing staff...requested a few more sets of hands" suggests that the current moderators will stay in office, to be joined by some number of additional moderators. Is that right? or do the current moderators need to nominate to be re-elected? (Either way is fine with me, I'm just requesting clarification.) $\endgroup$ Commented Sep 30, 2013 at 23:47
  • 8
    $\begingroup$ @GerryMyerson: That's correct; the current moderators will stay in office. The one exception is that I intend to step down. $\endgroup$ Commented Oct 1, 2013 at 1:48
  • 41
    $\begingroup$ I'm sad to hear Anton will step down. We all owe him a big thanks. $\endgroup$ Commented Oct 1, 2013 at 3:20
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ (I just posted this comment on the nominations thread, but maybe it's more appropriate here.) I know it's very late to bring this up, but the time frame for the whole nomination process seems very short. I know SE have their way of doing things, but MO is populated by people who are accustomed to operating at the slower pace of academia. $\endgroup$ Commented Oct 6, 2013 at 18:33

5 Answers 5


Based on information online about previous stackexchange elections, it looks like we'll be using the Single Transferable Vote (STV) with Meek's method. In other words, we'll express ordered preferences for the candidates, with only first-place votes actually counting but with rules for automatically transferring votes to backup candidates under certain circumstances (for example, if your first-place vote is for a hopeless candidate, then that candidate might be eliminated, which would transfer your vote to the person you ranked second). Is this correct?

Probably there's nothing to be done about it at this point, but STV is a ridiculous voting system, so it would make me a little sad to have it used in MO. Privileging first-place votes makes no sense (as far as I can tell, the only purpose is to keep it as close as possible to plurality voting, so clueless people don't complain about how approval voting or Borda counts violate the sacred rule of "one person, one vote"). Furthermore, the potentially complicated dynamics needed to determine the outcome are just a bad idea, making the results harder to predict or understand conceptually.

I can't see that it matters much in our case, since I don't expect this to be a complicated or contentious election, and in any case we presumably have to use the official stackexchange software. However, I felt I should say something, if only to make it clear that voting in the election doesn't mean endorsing the voting method being used.

  • 4
    $\begingroup$ Would it be possible for you to expand on your reasoning against this voting method? What exactly is the nature of the objection, and which alternative voting systems would be preferable in that light? $\endgroup$ Commented Oct 2, 2013 at 2:00
  • 6
    $\begingroup$ I'd probably go with approval voting: vote for the subset of candidates you think would make good moderators, and the candidates who get the most votes win. That's by far the simplest system in just about every respect (implementation, explanation for voters, understanding the results). One drawback is that it doesn't take into account intensity of feelings; you can use extensions like range voting for this, but I'm not convinced it's important here. $\endgroup$
    – Henry Cohn
    Commented Oct 2, 2013 at 2:10
  • $\begingroup$ One philosophical objection to approval voting is how you compare what approval means between two different people. There's no absolute standard. For a different approach, you could ask everyone to rank the candidates. The idea that is preferring X to Y has a clear meaning independent of the voter, in a way that approval voting does not. The drawback is that it makes voting more cumbersome, and it's not clear how to tally the votes. $\endgroup$
    – Henry Cohn
    Commented Oct 2, 2013 at 2:12
  • $\begingroup$ Arrow's impossibility theorem says that there's no ideal method to combine voter rankings into a societal ranking. (Ideal meaning three properties. Unanimity, meaning if everyone prefers X to Y then so does society. Independence of irrelevant alternatives, meaning adding Z as a candidate cannot change the relative rankings of X and Y. And no dictatorship, meaning there isn't just one person who single-handedly determines the societal rankings.) This is bad news for democracy, and it means when there are more than three alternatives we have to make some compromises in the voting method. $\endgroup$
    – Henry Cohn
    Commented Oct 2, 2013 at 2:15
  • $\begingroup$ One possibility is Borda count: with n candidates, you give n-1 votes to your top candidate, n-2 to the next, ..., down to 0 to the last. Then these votes are totaled. Of course one can adjust the weightings, but this is a particularly nice choice (it sums up the number of pairwise comparisons each candidate wins). See the book Chaotic Elections by Saari for arguments in favor of the Borda count. $\endgroup$
    – Henry Cohn
    Commented Oct 2, 2013 at 2:17
  • $\begingroup$ The system everyone hates is plurality, where only first-place votes count at all (as in U.S. presidential elections). Just about anything is better than that, since plurality has terrible issues with wasted votes, similar candidates splitting their support and losing to less popular candidates, etc. $\endgroup$
    – Henry Cohn
    Commented Oct 2, 2013 at 2:19
  • $\begingroup$ STV is basically designed to be as close to plurality as possible. I.e., you start out by counting only first-place votes, but you iteratively adjust things as you eliminate candidates. In certain types of elections, this fixes problems with spoiler candidates (who will quickly get eliminated and play no further role). Furthermore, it can be politically more tenable since it feels like a modification of plurality voting, rather than an entirely different method. $\endgroup$
    – Henry Cohn
    Commented Oct 2, 2013 at 2:22
  • $\begingroup$ On the other hand, it's by far the most complicated method (in its iterative dynamics), and these sorts of complications seem problematic in a voting system. Furthermore, preserving plurality voting's primary role for first-place votes is not a good thing. If you're going to ask voters for more information than that, you should try to take it into account in as principled a way as you can, rather than gradually letting some of it leak into your results as a patch for plurality voting. $\endgroup$
    – Henry Cohn
    Commented Oct 2, 2013 at 2:24
  • $\begingroup$ Sorry for the incredibly lengthy comments, but I figured I might as well give a more detailed outline of the background. (Hopefully those who don't want to read this won't expand the comments.) $\endgroup$
    – Henry Cohn
    Commented Oct 2, 2013 at 2:25
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ Thanks very much for your informative elaboration of your remarks! $\endgroup$ Commented Oct 2, 2013 at 2:26
  • 9
    $\begingroup$ I would suggest that you make a post with such kind of arguments to meta.SO with a proposal to change the voting mechanism for all future SE elections. You could also post one answer per voting system, and see how the support goes... $\endgroup$ Commented Oct 2, 2013 at 2:29
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ SE uses an open-source software and publishes the anonymized votes after the election so people can recheck them. I don't think predictability is needed or even a desired property. As you mentioned all voting systems have some issues and critics. $\endgroup$
    – Kaveh
    Commented Oct 2, 2013 at 5:31
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ Using OpenSTV and publishing anonymous votes is a responsible way of handling STV voting, but it addresses a side issue (will STV be done correctly, rather than will it give a sensible result). The usual justification for STV is that voters who are used to plurality voting will not trust any method that looks different, so better methods are not even on the table and the only question is STV vs. plurality. That may be true for citizens voting in elections, but it shouldn't be true for mathematicians. $\endgroup$
    – Henry Cohn
    Commented Oct 2, 2013 at 12:40
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ Wow, I guess holding elections in a crowd with intimate knowledge of voting paradoxes is a bit like deciding what to eat for dessert in a diabetic community. $\endgroup$ Commented Oct 2, 2013 at 22:08
  • 3
    $\begingroup$ I used to manage our faculty elections, and I wrote my own STV software to support the elections. I find it an eminently fair system. I mean no disrespect to Henry, who obviously has thought about the issue carefully. But I don't see this as a significant issue. Let us see how it goes and consider alternatives if we find it does not sit well with us after the election. $\endgroup$ Commented Oct 3, 2013 at 17:26

Erm... Why can you nominate only yourself? I guess the persons who are likely to make the best moderators (or the best presidents of the United States) are least likely to engage in self-promotion. If you want me to call things by their names and become personal, I mean quid and a couple of others like him. I would certainly vote for them any time but I suspect we'll have to exert some effort convincing them to accept the position. To expect them to step forward and say "I'm running" may be a bit naive...

  • $\begingroup$ I'll note that last time (when we ran the election less formally ourselves) essentially all nominations were for other people, who could then accept or decline. <tea.mathoverflow.net/discussion/426> $\endgroup$ Commented Oct 1, 2013 at 3:34
  • $\begingroup$ I am sure that it is in part to ensure that no nominations are rejected by the nominee. Perhaps "nominate" is a poor choice, but it part of the SE nomenclature. Think of it instead as stepping forward and announcing that you are willing to take on the additional responsibilities associated with moderation. $\endgroup$
    – user642796
    Commented Oct 1, 2013 at 3:40
  • 2
    $\begingroup$ But we had plenty of nominations rejected by the nominee previously, and it seemed a perfectly healthy process. I'm not sure why we want to avoid it. $\endgroup$ Commented Oct 1, 2013 at 3:55
  • 7
    $\begingroup$ @ScottMorrison: You might be right as it regards smaller sites like MO. But for the larger sites it might cause more probloems: StackOverflow saw 27 (self-)nominees for their last election, and the number likely would have been much higher if users could just nominate others. On the other hand, I don't think there is anything preventing MO from opening a "Who would you like to see run?" meta-thread. $\endgroup$
    – user642796
    Commented Oct 1, 2013 at 4:28
  • 10
    $\begingroup$ It'd be easy enough to start a thread where people could nominate candidates who could then choose whether or not to run (i.e. SE-nominate-themselves). $\endgroup$ Commented Oct 1, 2013 at 4:37
  • 3
    $\begingroup$ Noah's suggestion is of course very good. I'm going to be essentially off-line for two days, but after that if nominations haven't started coming in I'll create such a thread. $\endgroup$ Commented Oct 1, 2013 at 6:03
  • 7
    $\begingroup$ I posted a nomination thread here. $\endgroup$ Commented Oct 1, 2013 at 13:14

So what does a MathOverflow moderator do?

Ideally, not much. The only task that moderators are responsible for is dealing with flags. When community members flag a post for moderator attention or when certain user behaviors trigger some automatic warnings, moderators get a notification. Dealing with such a flag usually takes a few seconds. The vast majority of flags are dismissed because the community is perfectly able of dealing with them and often have by the time moderators get around to it. Sometimes more serious situations arise where a more substantial response is necessary but it still generally takes very little time to deal with those.

The workload is shared among all moderators and is completely voluntary. When I have a spare minute, I visit the site and clear all the easiest flags. If I have another spare minute, I might clear some flags that require more substantial actions if there are any (and usually there aren't any). Otherwise, I will leave those for the next moderator who comes along with another spare minute. Serious flags are very rare and the whole processing time adds up to two minutes or so per day. I'm also one of the more active moderators. Other moderators prefer acting as backup when others have to spend time away from MathOverflow or when something highly unusual happens.

There are also a few maintenance tasks but these are very occasional and completely optional. I mostly do the tasks I enjoy doing, such as cleaning up the tag ecosystem, and I leave the tasks I find less enjoyable to other moderators. These maintenance task pop up very rarely but they can take more than a few minutes. A good technique to avoid burden is to ask community members to do these in their spare time. For example, I regularly post tag maintenance tasks on meta and the new review mechanism has made the task of deleting old off-topic questions almost entirely obsolete.

There are also some perks to being a moderator. It's a great synergistic activity and you get to meet a lot of interesting people. I've been having a lot of fun thinking about how various "Math 2.0" projects can cooperate with MathOverflow in some way or another. These side activities vary a great deal from moderator to moderator but the opportunities are not hard to find!

  • 1
    $\begingroup$ I've (simultaneously, oops), started a separate thread to try to list various things that moderators do. meta.mathoverflow.net/q/931/3 $\endgroup$ Commented Oct 2, 2013 at 1:21
  • $\begingroup$ Thanks, @Scott! That's a great idea. Maybe we should move this answer there? $\endgroup$ Commented Oct 2, 2013 at 1:25

Just a brief note on the lack of nominations so far. Well, perhaps not exactly brief, but I'll attempt to avoid digressing.

I was one of the people that handled Math Overflow's transition to the Stack Exchange 2.0 platform. Any time that we introduce a major change, especially one that effects folks at the account level, we like to make sure that no one was left disenfranchised. To help test for this, I patiently waited for the folks that appeared on the first few pages here at the time to return to the site and have their accounts fixed.

A bit of nail biting went on as a Friday passed, and 1/3 of the people on that list still hadn't returned. To my delight, when Saturday came, almost everyone was quickly accounted for.

As Grace noted in comments, we've had entire nomination phases take place over the course of a weekend. While we'd prefer to not cut it so close, there's not much to worry about right now. We are, however, supporting the moderation team in their efforts to bring more attention to the election process, and watching carefully.

I strongly suspect that we'll see the most activity toward the middle to end of the week, just based on my observations of activity when we migrated the site to the SE 2.0 platform.

  • $\begingroup$ "moderation team" :-) $\endgroup$ Commented Oct 1, 2013 at 13:56

Has it ever happened (in other StackExchange sites) that an election has zero candidates, i.e., no one nominates themselves?

  • $\begingroup$ If you step out of the room for a moment, I'd be happy to nominate you. Of course, that would not answer your question. $\endgroup$ Commented Oct 1, 2013 at 2:07
  • $\begingroup$ Almost. It's never fully happened but we've had nomination phases go entirely dry up until the weekend, to no end of panic on our end. $\endgroup$
    – Grace Note StaffMod
    Commented Oct 1, 2013 at 5:17

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