A Open Letter to the Boston DSA Steering Committee on Online Voting

By Edward P

Dear Steering Committee comrades,

After the April 25th meeting to discuss an endorsement process for Boston DSA, it is clear that we are at an impasse in regards to the use of online voting for electoral endorsements and the only possible resolution for this argument is a vote at a General Meeting. We, the undersigned, would like to lay out our concerns with adopting online processes for our chapter and propose a process for moving forward.

First, we would like to make it clear that this is not about relitigating the Steering Committee elections. We understand that those of us who ran in the election, who then voiced concerns, have been accused of ‘sour grapes’ or of being ‘sore losers’ with regard to complaints about the split between the preferences of online voters and in-person voters at the convention. While we believe that there were structural flaws with how that election was conducted, it was a legitimate process because online voting was specifically permitted by our bylaws for internal elections and the elections themselves were not carried out under parliamentary procedure. We encourage engagement with the rest of our arguments in good faith that we are not disputing the Steering Committee’s legitimacy.

The arguments advanced at the April 25th meeting display a fundamental difference in how we understand a democratic membership driven organization. In order to explore these differences, we need to look at why we use parliamentary procedure, how we understand the difference between voting and participation, the process through which socialist knowledge of the world is built, and finally, how ‘accessibility’ and ‘working-class’ have been weaponized in this debate.

The purpose of parliamentary procedure is simply that the majority should rule but the minority should be heard. The problem with mixing in-person debate and online voting that is open to people who were not present (either physically or via a telepresence solution) is that the minority will not be heard by those only engaging through the process via online voting. In such a scenario the in-person debates and discussions would be undermined as they would only represent a portion of those participating. Comrades may even choose to not attend knowing that they don’t need to in order to vote. It is fundamentally not parliamentary procedure in that case. Yes, we can figure out a way to carry out parliamentary procedure entirely online, but that still means some kind of live debate has to be carried out that all voters have to be present (in whatever sense) for; simply putting out a ‘pro’ and ‘con’ statement doesn’t satisfy the spirit of parliamentary procedure, and opportunities to hear comrades’ real lived experiences, thoughts, and concerns are limited in such a format. Furthermore, being able to raise ‘points of …’ during the debate are extremely important to clarify information or point out falsehoods or distortions of fact.

Moving parliamentary procedure entirely online, either through a text-based discussion or a conference call style solution, is an entirely valid way to have online voting, but it should require us to think about if that changes our organization in way we’re all comfortable with. Toxicity and managing hurt feelings have always proved a huge problem for text-based online communication, and online conference calls require access to internet speeds that may not viable for all members. Are we prepared to tackle those challenges? We argue that, at this time, we are not; we will have to be if we want to become an organization that conducts parliamentary business online.

Another crux of disagreement expressed at the April 25th meeting was whether we could quantify the efficacy of the democratic process based on the number of people participating in it.  As stated in our chapter’s Purpose as ratified by the membership at our annual convention, the goal of our socialist movement is to “realize a truly democratic society,” and not merely import the shallow standard of democracy permitted by our capitalist society. True to that value, a vote on policy (such as endorsement decisions made as a whole chapter) is fundamentally different from voting in an election, in that it requires full participation and deliberation, and if people are prevented by circumstance from doing so, that a fair solution be made available so they are able to fully participate in the discussion and vote by proxy.The liberal view, in contrast, holds that passive suffrage is enough to make a process ‘fair’ – that if everyone can register a lone vote as an individual then the class struggle is resolved and the outcome should be considered legitimate. This is an area where the hegemonic ideology of liberalism has clouded the terms of the debate.

We are a membership organization with a specific, and pretty grand purpose: to win socialism for the people of the world. When we consider our internal democracy we have to consider it on those terms. Socialists do not conduct the struggle as atomized individuals; socialists struggle collectively. Socialists understand the world collectively. We should be building procedures that encourage collective debate, discussion, and reflection, and not structures that allow people to participate only by casting votes. And maybe the way to do that is by going fully online! That is definitely worth considering, but its success can only be measured by the extent to which it deepens our collective organizational capability, not by an increase in the number of votes cast.

The undersigned describe ourselves as Marxists. Part of being Marxists means we see political struggle and the knowledge we acquire from that struggle as a scientific process. The building of scientific knowledge–whether it is learning botany or learning about tenant organizing–is always a collective process. This is the key argument Kautsky and Lenin advanced in the early 20th century against the revisionists like Bernstein in the German Social Democracy Party and the Economists within the Russian Social Democratic Labor Party. Marxism is the loop of theory to practice to knowledge of the world back to theory. The practice of a socialist organization to should be to test its theories, collectively evaluate its result, and use that to determine where to go from there. Therefore, before we jump into new action, we need to debate and discuss the theory that underlies that action. We have clearly not done that with regards to either online voting or our electoral strategy more generally. To operate under these conditions, without theory or strategy, is to create opportunities where individuals can use the cover of ‘socialism’ to advance their personal agendas.

And yes, if the last 100 years have taught us anything about science, it is that scientific truth is not objective truth–that the process of experimentation and discovery is intimately tied up with human fallibility and  the material conditions within which we operate. That is why Marxists don’t seek to prevent individual experimentation and initiative as we are often accused of within this chapter. Instead, we believe that all practice within the chapter needs to be tied into a social practice that values discussion, study, and reflection, such that we can integrate any knowledge gained into our collective understanding of the world system we struggle against.

The way online voting has been promoted as the solution to accessibility issues for comrades with mobility issues is particularly troubling to us. As far as we are aware the people pushing for online voting for chapter decisions have not reached out to either our local Disability Caucus or the national Disability Working Group. Instead of consulting those inside our chapter, or those inside of our national organization, with the most direct lived experience of the issues at hand, they have concocted a solution entirely without their input.

In this debate ‘accessibility’ has also been used to mean ‘accessible to the working-class’. We take issue with the idea that in-person meetings are not accessible to the working class and that holding in-person meetings is responsible for the current class-character of our organization. The working-class is not a monolithic entity. The idea that there is a one-size fits all method for allowing our participation in the life of this organization, either online or in-person, is incorrect, which is why our organization has adopted hybrid online/in-person meetings via streaming or teleconferencing over the last year. Although we have adapted to the needs of our members, we have still maintained that our meetings are events that we participate in together. The neoliberal world order seeks to isolate us from one another, and being together for an event where we can hear more than a pro and con video, and hear each other and our lived experiences, builds the solidarity between individuals necessary for the success of a socialist movement.

It’s also unclear to us that making decisions online would actually reduce barriers to participation or change the class-character of DSA. Sure, some of us have to work on weekends, but some of us don’t have access to reliable or high quality internet connections. The MBTA may have issues, but it has a lower barrier in terms of monetary cost to access than the broadband internet connection or phone plan necessary to fully participate in a teleconference call. To us, the class-character of DSA seems to be a result of its politics and its tactical positions. We are much more likely to reach a broader segments of working-class people by adopting truly radical positions and communicating with them clearly, instead of muddling our socialism with paeans to small businesses, ‘affordable’ housing, and the innovation economy. We can develop connections with a broader section of working-class people by breaking out the cycle of organizing for elections and organizing to beg politicians, and instead, help people organize to directly confront state power and the problems they are facing in their lives. We will grow our organization and change our class-character only when we prove we can directly impact the lives of working-class people rather than merely changing the agent of capitalist power that rules over them.

When we make decisions, such as candidate endorsements, as a chapter, we must make them in a truly collective manner. Online voting without an online culture and online media for the chapter reduces the collective decision to a series of smaller individual decisions. If we are to move forward towards online voting, we must do so in manner that values the collective production of knowledge and prevents individuals with substantial social capital from using the organization for their own ends.

These are the terms under which we will contest. We believe it is up to the Steering Committee to decide on the next steps of how this process will be determined democratically by the General Membership. We think it would be in the best interest of the chapter to contest it on the narrowest grounds, which is “Should we allow online voting for candidate endorsements,” but the proposal we will debate must demonstrate how we will preserve the fundamental element of parliamentary procedure, “the majority rules but the minority is heard.” We urge you to take this into consideration when planning the next steps of this debate.

Finally, we would like to reiterate that we are contesting this issue on political, not personal, grounds. We understand that we are in an organization where members have differing understandings of socialism, and for some, it is difficult to separate criticism of their political positions and the labor they have undertaken in support of those positions from criticism of themselves as a person. That is why we are being clear about our specific political understanding of the world that leads us to believe the organization should function in the way we outlined above. We don’t believe that this kind of fight is a new one for socialist organizations to have and we encourage everyone to study and discuss the history of such debates, so if nothing else we can all understand each other politically more on the other side of this process.


Signed by 37 people.

If you would like to add your name to this document and have it submitted to the Boston DSA Steering Commitee you may add it here: https://goo.gl/forms/Gjj9c8GrumjvMILr1

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