Toward Radical Democracy: A Proposal for Internal Voting Reform in Boston DSA

by Kit C., Treasurer, and Evan L., Steering Committee

Democratic Socialists of America is an organization founded on the idea that socialism is inseparable from democracy. The democracy we envision is not one founded on the hollow institutions of liberal-democratic representative government, but a direct, radical democracy grounded in true collective liberation. We demand that each person has a fair say in any decision that affects them. In keeping with these ideals, the highest governing body in Boston DSA is our membership: When we must decide the direction of our chapter, all of us together set the course.

In practice, we determine our chapter’s direction by voting. But we also know that voting in itself does not necessarily produce truly democratic decision making — and that, unfortunately, is exactly where we stand at present. Our reliance on in-person and proxy participation at general meetings has led to the exclusion of many of our comrades from our deliberative process and votes. By failing to enfranchise all of our members, Boston DSA has fallen far short of the radical democracy to which we aspire.

We can and must do better. In response, we have proposed a bylaw amendment that will allow Boston DSA to develop a robust system of integrated online and in-person deliberation and voting. Only by ensuring that each and every one of our comrades in Boston DSA has the opportunity to fully participate in our internal democracy can we live up to our own socialist ideals.

Our Current Voting System
With a handful of exceptions (such as officer elections), all of Boston DSA’s chapter-wide collective decision making takes place at general meetings (GMs), usually held in the late afternoon on the third Saturday of each month. Members can either attend the two-hour meeting in person or participate via livestream by designating a proxy ahead of time who will vote on their behalf. If participating by proxy, a member must watch the livestream and, once the question is called, inform their representative of their vote via email or text message. Combined attendance at these meetings usually falls between 100 and 200 members, roughly 10% of our 1,500 member chapter. The general meeting reaches decisions by a ballot of those in attendance after an in-person debate governed by Robert’s Rules. Debate is generally limited to two speakers for and two against a proposal. Extensions to debate are possible through a motion, second, and majority vote. Each speaker has two minutes maximum to make their case.

Failures of Inclusion Are Failures of Democracy
Our current system bars anyone who is unavailable for those specific two hours — for any reason — from having any say in decisions that affect the trajectory of the organization as a whole. Each month we inevitably disenfranchise many of our comrades. Even worse, members whose time is most dominated by the demands of survival under capitalism — those whose schedules are the most inflexible due to their deprivation from so-called leisure time — are most likely to be excluded. Not all of us get to stop working after clocking out on Friday evening. Moving the time of our general meetings cannot adequately fix this problem, as it will merely shift the burden to other members who will not be able to attend the new timeslot.

Some have argued against implementing online voting on the grounds that if you aren’t “dedicated enough” or “active enough” to show up at a specific meeting, you don’t deserve a voice or a vote. We reject both the factual basis and prescriptive conclusion of this argument. A person’s availability during a specific two hour block is a totally arbitrary measure of their level of involvement in or dedication to our work. We know for a fact that many highly involved organizers have missed out on the chance to vote, many repeatedly. Other members, many of whom do participate in working group activities, have been unable to become as involved as they want to in chapter-wide decision-making because they have been consistently disenfranchised. (You can hear from some of them in their own words here.) Perhaps more importantly, we believe that we have no right to ask for anyone’s labor or commitment unless we remove barriers to their full and equal participation in our decision-making.

As socialists upholding ideals of radical democracy, we must do right by these and all of our comrades and ensure we are all truly enfranchised.

Shift workers whose bosses control when they work; tipped workers who rely on more lucrative weekend and evening shifts; other workers (including organizers) who must travel frequently or work evenings and weekends; people who care for children or other loved ones; anyone surprised last-minute by an emergency, such as a funeral or sudden illness; people with disabilities, chronic illnesses, or forms of neurodivergence that disrupt their ability to use the proxy system: the current system of proxy and in-person voting disproportionately silences them all. As socialists upholding ideals of radical democracy, we must do right by these and all of our comrades and ensure we are all truly enfranchised.

The State of Our Debate
We also must ask ourselves how deciding everything solely by in-person and proxy voting at general meetings affects how we deliberate. Based on what we have observed over many months, we have concluded that constraining our formal debate to a period of less than an hour per issue — rigidly structured and artificially confined by the binary adversarial framework of bourgeois parliamentary procedure — does not facilitate substantive, considered, and comradely deliberation.

Those who object to absentee voting assert that the General Meeting should be our most important forum for deliberation, and that in-person debate is our most reliable medium for ensuring the broader membership is sufficiently exposed to a wide range of views on any given matter. We reject this premise. In fact, relying exclusively on in-person oral debate excludes many of our comrades and deprives all of us of the time and context required to make a fully considered decision. By limiting our official deliberation to oral debate in the format of two speakers for, two speakers against (or even four or six speakers for and against) and carefully worded points of information, we necessarily limit both the time available for deliberation, the range of views represented, and the depth and quantity of information presented.

Oratory is certainly lively and exciting, but as a medium it is not well suited for conveying complex arguments and the full context around them. Two to four minute speeches cannot provide sufficient room for speakers to make nuanced arguments, present in-depth information, or suggest alternative methods for accomplishing our chapter’s goals. The short-form debate format also unfairly amplifies the voices of those members who are already insiders in the chapter (by virtue of having access to unofficial discussion channels, and therefore having already explored the issue at hand) and those blessed with the ability to think on their feet and quickly and forcefully convey their ideas in speech.

How could it possibly be the case that time-limited in person debate is the best way to make sure all views on an issue — especially less widely-shared ones — are heard?

As it stands, the majority of our members are reduced to spectators as a handful of chapter insiders dominate the stage. Those whose strengths lie in other areas, or who simply do not feel comfortable or prepared enough to put themselves on the spot in front of a hundred or more other people, are effectively shut out of the discussion. Even if a member wants to speak, they are unlikely to get the opportunity to do so because there simply isn’t time for more than a tiny fraction of those attending to participate. Most members are silenced; they must satisfy themselves with hoping one of the few speakers recognized by the chair will represent their point of view. How, then, could it possibly be the case that this format is the best way to make sure all views on an issue — especially less widely-shared ones — are heard?

Even if enough time were available for wider-ranging and more in-depth oral discussion, our current process still unacceptably limits the time we’re allotted in which to come to fully considered and informed decisions. Most members must deliberate solely within the period for debate and voting — usually fifteen to thirty minutes. They lack the the time to verify the facts presented, seek out alternative views, self-educate on the broader context and history of an issue, ask questions, discuss the matter in more searching or open-ended manner, “sleep on it,” or use any number of other strategies they use to come to an informed decision in all other areas of their lives.

All of us deserve more time and space to fully consider the decisions we’re called upon to make. But right now, we force many of our comrades to make snap judgments about critical and complex issues based on brief speeches forced into a simplified binary framework of “for” or “against.” We certainly don’t give most members a chance to form a deep enough understanding of an issue ahead of time to propose their own alternative solutions or contribute amendments to existing proposals. Our reliance on general meetings as venues for collective decision-making has meant that most of our members are deprived of the opportunity to fully participate in our internal democracy. This failure demands our urgent action as comrades to repair it.

Our Proposal: Voting Reform for Full Inclusion
In response to this untenable situation, we propose creating an official online forum for both discussion and voting in order to create more a deliberative, inclusive, substantive, and therefore more fully democratic process for chapter-wide decision-making. We propose instituting a seven day window during which members have the opportunity to deliberate and vote. This new process would complement (not supplant) oral discussion at the general meeting with ongoing online discussion and online voting.

  • Three days before the General Meeting: Discussion online (summarized for GM)
  • Day of General Meeting: Oral discussion (recorded and shared online)
  • Three days following the General Meeting: Discussion and voting online

We do not propose a specific technical approach or detailed process here because doing so is both beyond the scope of this piece and would also be presumptuous. Any voting system must be democratically developed by our members. Doing so will require input and labor from multiple working groups, committees, teams, and individuals. In particular, we will need to prioritize designing an online space and voting process that fully accounts for the accessibility needs of disabled comrades (for example, compatibility with screen readers) and provides for full participation by members who lack consistent access to broadband internet, comfort with following web-based discussions, or voting online. We will need to find ways to share the substance of online discussions with those participating mainly in oral debate, and vice versa. We’re confident, however, that together Boston DSA members have the experience, skills, knowledge, and drive to build an effective, inclusive, and accessible process.

Any solution we devise should encourage considered, long-form, asynchronous discussion; maximize deep and broad participation by our members; and be easily discoverable by all members yet private enough that they feel comfortable speaking freely under their own names without fear of surveillance. All of the formal and informal discussion channels on which substantive debate currently takes place in this chapter lack at least one of these critical features. For example, both Medium and the Political Education Working Group blog are highly public and do not allow for back and forth discussion by multiple parties. Substantive discussion of pieces published in either venue almost always instead take place on Twitter or Facebook. In order to even become aware of these informal discussions, you must be friends with, or at least follow, the right people. Many members eschew these platforms entirely out of concern for their privacy or aversion to the sound-bite focused discussion style they encourage. Similarly, while Slack is useful tool for quickly organizing practical plans of actions, that’s exactly because it facilitates a rapid, short form, and relatively synchronous chatroom-style conversation.

This proposal, if implemented, will provide members unable to attend (in-person or online) a particular general meeting with the opportunity to fully and substantively participate in our democratic decision-making, not just to cast a vote. By extending our deliberative process into a flexible week-long asynchronous discussion and voting period, we will allow many more of our comrades the opportunity to educate themselves and each other and come to decisions they can be confident in. Instead of missing out if they happen to be unavailable during a specific two-hour period, members can log on during a break at work, once they’ve put the kids to bed, or simply whenever they’re feeling up to it. And when they do, they’ll have far more time to fully review others’ arguments, join the discussion if they wish, and seek out further information. A dedicated online forum will also help to level the playing field by surfacing perspectives from members who would otherwise go unheard. Instead of gambling that they’ll be lucky enough to get the chance to speak at the general meeting, each member has the opportunity to share their views when and how they see fit.

Here’s the root of the question before us: do you trust your comrades to make informed decisions based on their values and beliefs given the information available to them? If we do, we have the responsibility to fully enfranchise each and every member.

Toward Radical Democracy
Tinkering with the terms of our internal democracy cannot by itself fully resolve the central contradiction of socialist organizing: that those who need socialism the most often have the fewest resources (time, money, energy) left over to work towards its victory. Indeed, nothing short of abolishing capitalism, white supremacy, heteropatriarchy, and other systems of oppression can resolve this contradiction. But implementing an asynchronous online decision-making process is something we can do, right now, to help our organization better reflect our own values and the future we’re all fighting for.

If we fail to ensure that every member has the opportunity to participate fully in our work, how can we ask them to offer us their labor, time, and solidarity?

Is it right to say that if a member has a last-minute emergency, scheduling conflict, or health crisis, they forfeit their right to participate in collective decision-making in a socialist organization? If we want our fellow members of Boston DSA to deepen their involvement in our shared work, we must first show them that their involvement matters to us — that they are our comrades. If we fail to ensure that every member has the opportunity to participate fully in our work, how can we ask them to offer us their labor, time, and solidarity?

We’re presented with a choice. We can perpetuate a system of decision-making designed for a much smaller body of socialist organizers that fails to facilitate substantive, participatory discussion and prevents large portions of our membership from having any say in decisions which affect us all. Or we can take the opportunity to enfranchise vastly more of our comrades in Boston DSA. All that is required is the will to build a better system together and the courage to trust our comrades. To us, the choice is clear.

If you would like to sign on in support of this proposal, please click here. To date, over 100 members of Boston DSA have endorsed it. We also welcome support from DSA comrades in other chapters.

This piece was republished from Medium. Co-signatures, as well as a note regarding earlier drafts of the piece, can be found at the original post, which is being continuously updated as signatures are added.

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