We’re All Paper Members

by Katherine I.

Recently, a letter was submitted to the Steering Committee expressing concerns around the dynamics of online voting in the chapter, and whether it should be permissible for members to vote on endorsements outside the framework of a live (streamed or in-person) General Meeting. The letter made several points against online voting, and by extension all remote voting, as creating a inherently capitalistic, inferior framework. Beyond responding to points made in the document, I fundamentally disagree with the idea that allowing an online vote is an inferior framework when it is simply inherently a more democratic framework. The purpose of this essay is not necessarily to provide a point-by-point refutation of arguments outlined in the letter, but to advocate that online/absentee voting is an inherently superior framework than only voting on the floor, and one we should work to adopt in our chapter.

I believe that any framework which prioritizes the ease of voting is a superior framework.

I believe that any framework which allows for secret balloting is a superior framework.

I believe that the rank-and-file, and by extension the working-class, does not need to be grounded in socialist theory to know what is correct practice for a mass movement.

Voting procedures in our organization cannot be seen as in isolation and independent of the history and context of voting outside our organization. Voting procedures can either create a democratic, diverse, and open organization, or an anti-democratic, narrow, hierarchical one. And every step between a voter and a vote is a barrier we should strive to demolish.

Only allowing those who attend a General Meeting to vote is a barrier. We should work to demolish it.

Town Meetings: The Problems With Live Frameworks

Have you ever been to a town meeting?

Town Meetings are an annual event in rural New England towns where municipal officers are elected and budgets are approved. They typically happen in springtime. Citizens from all over gather to debate and vote, usually using Robert’s Rules, and in a few scant hours the vast majority of the town’s business is sorted out.

Many towns do not use Town Meetings anymore. There’s a simple reason for that – they are undemocratic and uphold a narrow range of (usually moneyed) interests. “In more modern times, New England Town Meetings have suffered a drop in attendance attributable to the increase in town size… While their purpose continues to be the granting of an open, impartial forum for public opinion, John Gastil notes that meetings are less ‘open’ than they used to be; composed primarily of stakeholders and invited guests.”

My own town meeting had maybe two or three hundred participants, representing a town of over 9,000 citizens. Around 3% of our entire town crammed into an auditorium to decide the business of everyone who lives there. Town Meetings occur in the evening, on a Tuesday, right after a 9–5 work day, and my city had limited public transit.

This meant our Town Meetings were almost exclusively white middle-class landowners, most of them childless, often seniors. They decided the school budget. They decided who ran the town. And they ran the town for middle-class, childless landowners, and not for people who couldn’t make it to town meetings because they had work, children, or lack of access to transit. Even if every member of my town could have made it to such a meeting, there wouldn’t be a venue to accommodate them all or a way to fairly distribute debate time.

Town Meetings have largely been abandoned as a forum for voting for this and other reasons. We should follow their lead and seek to minimize and supplement the use of “on the floor” votes whenever possible. Town Meetings, are — to be sure — representative of people who care about the town. If you care about the town, you are unusually incentivized to go to a huge meeting once a year on a Tuesday night. But they’re also representative of people who have access to time and money. That is not working-class people, it is not people with children, and it is not people with accessibility concerns of any kind.

It’s about Accessibility — Everyone’s Accessibility

A DSA General Meeting is essentially a Town Meeting, held more often and at, perhaps, a slightly better time. Once a month, members gather in DSA to do the business of DSA. Like a Town Meeting, we have the excitement and vitality of live debate.

But there are very real barriers to General Meeting attendance. It incentivizes people who have at least two hours–often more–to burn, usually on a weekend. General Meetings typically occur at times that are accessible for DSA’s largest contingent, which is young (usually white) college students and professionals. Weekends and occasional weekday nights are viable for those who work a typical 9–5 job or have daily classes. Many do not — and typically working or lower class occupations fall into this category. Over one in 10 US jobs are retail jobs, and these by nature require workers to be on the job when other people aren’t. Their shifts are unpredictable, their time-off is unpaid, and their hours are cut if they decline shifts at peak hours. Some subsistence work such as call centers require workers to be in the office on the second shift from around 4pm to midnight, so if your GMs are on a weekday night, you’ve cut off another portion of attendees.

General Meetings, especially on weekends, are set up to be ideal for those who do not have to worry about the reproductive labor of caring for children. Many DSA chapters, including my own Boston DSA, have made strides in providing child watch — a huge step up from early meetings when parents had no options. But a General Meeting still asks a parent to make time to vote in-person, time they may want to spend with their child — especially if they are separated, working more than forty hours, or have plans for social events with or for their children.

Even if you don’t have a retail job, a second shift occupation, or limited time with your family, most other activist work occurs during these hours. Our annual bylaw amendment vote occurred during “The March for Our Lives.” If members wanted to participate in our bylaw process, they were asked to pass on one of the largest, most youth oriented, and vital mass protests in the last forty years. The ask of DSA Membership was “You can either participate in an absolutely historic activist event — whether you’re there to join in or give more critical support — or you can exercise your right to give input on the way in which we run your chapter.” To ask members to prioritize bylaw amendments over such a landmark event gives lie to the idea that attendance at a meeting is the best way to build socialism. If we purport to be an organization dedicated to overturning the oppressive structures of capitalism, we must allow members a say in our day-to-day administrative work without forcing them to sacrifice the political work of building socialism.

A Praxis of Privilege

Even beyond all of these individual reasons why in-person only votes are inaccessibile,  it is the highest principle of democracy and accessibility that voting be as absolutely accessible as possible, for any person and by any avenue, for any reason. This is a principle that goes beyond what any one person’s accessibility needs might be and echoes a higher principle of what we mean when we talk about accessible voting. When we talk about accessible voting, we are not just talking about those who work, those who have children, or those who have other commitments. We are talking about the fundamental belief that voting is something we should strive to make as easy for anyone to accomplish as it is to read a ballot. When we look at the measures we support in voting, historically, the more voting expands, the more it represents working-class interests.

This core principle of voting is violated in the Town Meeting example, where the intent may not be to limit participation to privileged actors but the effect is to do so. Even with the limited set of accessibility examples above, it’s clear that those accessibility barriers move far beyond just those above but to everyone in the chapter. If the argument is that this does not matter, that it is more important to empower the voice of the minority who may better know or understand the contours of the debate, we have to ask ourselves how such barriers in the past have been used under similar rhetoric to nefarious ends. Indeed, one low point of the socialist movement was when the American Federation of Labor in the late 1800s argued for literacy tests for the ostensible reasons of ensuring an educated and informed electorate, when such reasoning actually had to do with the AFL’s desire to shut working class immigrants out of voting and prioritize english-speaking union members. Voter ID laws and barriers to and automatic voter registration use similar rhetoric that those who really want to or really deserve to vote will take the pains it requires to vote or won’t be impacted. Time and time again in history we see that calls — be they motivated by pure reasons or not — to limit voting to educated actors have the effect of suppressing working-class voters. (source)(source)(source)(source)

Even if we try to make the argument that the effect of mass participation without educational barriers leads to uninformed and anti-socialist choices — unrooted in the important understanding of socialist theory — the vast majority of actual outcomes of mass voting outside the dynamic of in-person or limited voting show that even “uninformed” working-class voters understand the interests of a mass, pro-worker movement. Australia’s implementation of compulsory voting increased turnout by 24%, but more importantly, it significantly increased the share of Labor party seats in the AU, who had a pro-union and socialist platform (source) (source).  While I prefer incentivized voting because of the potential regressive implications of a punitive compulsory voting system, the function of having “uninformed” voters vote was to encourage more people to engage with the process and ultimately make choices that reflect the interests of a mass working-class base.

A Socialist Aristocracy

Much of this is uncontroversial within the base of DSA — I am sure that it is most likely uncontroversial with those who have raised concerns with online voting. But these comrades would argue that these are national questions, working within the framework of a liberal system, under liberal rules, and we should not reflect them. We are trying to create an organization that works beyond such capitalistic structures and engages people collectively in a mass movement where there is a robust, vital exchange of live ideas.

We do not exist outside of a capitalist framework. Even if you believe a live debate is the ideal socialist framework, we must construct the best democracy we can right now, in this moment, in the context of an oppressive, capitalist framework, and everything we have learned in that framework tells us that more votes and ease of voting means more working-class power. Rosa Luxemburg said, “Socialist democracy is not something which begins only in the promised land after the foundations of socialist economy are created; it does not come as some sort of Christmas present for the worthy… Socialist democracy begins simultaneously with the beginnings of the destruction of class rule and of the construction of socialism. It must proceed step by step out of the active participation of the masses.” We cannot wait for some theoretically liberal framework to be overthrown before we open the doors of DSA to the rank-and-file who cannot come to a meeting. We cannot create some collective decision-making process in our organization ungrounded in the material circumstances of workers that are occurring right now. We must aggressively increase participation to the people in whatever avenue we can, and we cannot create a walled garden of what we want such a system to look like in which only those able to be contained inside are given a voice and are able to tend to the tenets of socialism. We must open our doors to the masses outside, and we must allow them to grasp the promise of a socialist future and participate in our organizing in whatever way they can.

Some may feel that online votes and secret ballots are a hopelessly liberal framework; that we cannot create a socialist organization with a vote that is not live and social,  and such a vote has no democratic vitality. I categorically reject such thinking. A mass movement consists of mass input ,and just like socialism encourages us to organize the many for the common good, we organize individual voices collectively for a mass movement where everyone is given the opportunity to express their say — and we then join their voices together to determine the collective road for socialism.

Secret votes have important features that go beyond simply allowing mass input. Systems which uphold that a live vote is a democratic ideal have not wrestled with deeply problematic social dynamics that live votes foster. A movement’s votes should be honest votes of conscience grounded in the ability of members or caucuses to inspire a mass movement and convince rank-and-filers of theory and strategy. But in-person voting actively undermines votes of conscience. One of the most famous experiments of psychology, the Asch experiment, showed how, when presented with verifiably and objectively false information, people will often go with the answer of the group due to the fear of social retribution. This experiment spoke to deep human fears about rejection and censure for heterodox ideas. We cannot base socialism on a system which may be built on a consensus extracted through fear rather than unfettered votes of conscience. And we cannot echo, even unintentionally, a punitive, capitalistic framework of “justice” to enforce the behavior of rank-and-file. Whatever the noble goals of a consensus decision making process, the impact of such systems is inherently to enshrine dynamics of shame, power, and control. There is nothing inherently anti-consensus about online “paper” ballots, which allow rank-and-file to vote their conscience and then use that vote to arrive at a collective decision, rather than arriving at a false consensus based on potentially dishonest votes made from fear.

Those who want to use live votes to create a dynamic where we are echoing a theoretical dynamic of socialism — one where members are exposed to a certain socialist praxis — may arguably echo a different attitude than liberal frameworks. Instead, they are echoing an aristocratic framework — an even older, more regressive political framework — that sees certain groups as having a superior ability to engage in decision-making through the basis of their education. Such frameworks have been used to oppress working-class people for thousands of years by enshrining a meritocratic ideal that certain people are just better than others because they have the correct amount of information about the business of running a government. It is an ideal that liberal frameworks have used to enshrine this regressive meritocratic idea that only the highly educated ought to have the right to decide the business of government. It is a framework reflected everywhere from the Roman Senate to modern calls that neoliberal Democrats are more “experienced” or educated and therefore inherently deserving of power. (source), (source, pp30), (source), (source).

We do not “know better” than people without socialist theory, and we do not need a framework that requires people to engage membership with socialist praxis in order to vote. From the Diggers to the Paris Commune, working-class people have understood perfectly well what is wrong with society without the banner of Marxist theory to guide them.

We’re all Paper Members

Those who argue against online voting imply that there is some difference between a paper member and a “live” member — between those who “only” pay their dues and engage in our work in a more piecemeal fashion rather than attending General Meetings. These “paper members” may engage in DSA through reading online and engaging in socialist theory through articles or Slack, going to individual workshops or canvasses, going only to Working Group meetings, or attending General Meetings infrequently. But even the act of signing on to become a dues-paying member is a commitment to the project of socialism. That is a commitment that every member of DSA shares, and all of them have differing and yet similar ideas of how to fulfill the promise of socialism. And it is something — perhaps even the only thing — that all of us share. The moment before we walk into the doors of a GM we are all paper members, and the moment after we walk out we are all paper members, engaging in socialism when we can, where we can, how we can. To make a discrete difference between a member because they have walked into a room is not the work of socialism. It is the work of elitism, and there is no room for elitism in the socialist project.


Katherine I., EWG Co-Chair (liaison to the Membership)

Co-Signed Robbie H., EWG Co-Chair (liaison to the Membership)


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