Onward to Convention: A Post-Election Retrospective

Published August 4, 2023

This submission is a response to a previously published letter in Washington Socialist, which you can find linked here.

Metro DC DSA recently elected 38 delegates and 4 alternates for the 2023 DSA National Convention. The election, which concluded on May 28th, saw a win by the Onward Slate, a slate of 40 working group leaders, Administrative Committee (AdCom) leaders and emerging chapter leaders and organizers. Of the other two slates, Red Slate and Roots & Branches Slate each won an alternate seat. After the results were announced, some chapter members were disappointed in the results and put forward a case that the election was somehow unfair. Most recently, an article was published by a chapter member alleging that the election had deeply damaged the chapter. My goal with this piece is to provide an accounting of the facts around the election, defend the democratic nature of the election and our chapter, take stock of what we can do to heal any divides and move forward with a robust set of democratic norms that preserve the membership’s ability to make decisions for the chapter. 

An Accounting of Events

On April 3rd, the National Convention channel in our chapter Slack was opened. All 1,780 chapter members that use Slack were automatically added to the channel. The Steering Committee posted an explanation of the delegate and National Political Committee (NPC) elections and made a call for Internal Elections Department (IED) volunteers. The IED is tasked with facilitating the elections and sending out the OpaVote ballot. On April 11th, Hayden G, an MDC DSA Steering Committee member, introduced a resolution to amend our chapter’s Standing Internal Election Rules to the Steering Committee to use the Approval voting method instead of a ranked choice system. Hayden had posted the proposed changes to the election rules in the public steering channel in Slack on April 7th, ahead of the April 11th steering meeting. The motion was debated and unanimously sent to the general body for debate and approval. There were some conversations in Slack about the proposed rules changes and it was communicated to members in that discussion that they could propose an amendment or an independent resolution if they felt inclined. None did. 

The amendment was then introduced at the chapter’s General Body Meeting on April 23rd. There was a robust debate at this meeting, with some advocating for the single transferable vote (STV) method. Still, a majority present, including leaders from another slate that would run for convention, argued in favor of approval voting. Our chapter has used approval voting in chapter Steering elections since at least 2018. After the General Body Meeting (GBM), there was a two-day submission period for statements either For or Against, as required by our chapter bylaws. The resulting statements were entirely For.

On April 24th, nominations opened for delegates to the national DSA convention and the NPC. On April 25th, Onward Slate was announced in the aforementioned convention channel. The slate itself was a unity slate, comprising several different perspectives but sharing some key visions for the future of the national organization. In response, members of the chapter’s Northern Virginia Branch Steering Committee objected to the lack of Northern Virginia members on the slate and suggested that the Branch Steering Committee ought to have been consulted and involved in the construction of the slate. Others took issue with the inclusion of the entire Steering Committee on the slate.

The vote on the new election rules ran from April 26th to May 1st, ultimately passing the resolution 116 – 22.

On May 15th, 10 Northern Virginia members organized into the Roots & Branches Slate, followed by six members of the chapter’s Publications working group and Administrative Committee forming the Red Slate on May 16th. 

On May 21st, the chapter held our in-person GBM, during which the Steering Committee facilitated breakout groups to foster meaningful discussion on the National Convention, what our chapter should or shouldn’t be supporting, our organizing strengths and weaknesses as a chapter and general questions on the structure of DSA. Group reports followed this to understand where our members stand on the important questions facing DSA. Afterward, we had a happy hour where the Steering Committee encouraged slates to use that space to have more detailed discussions about why chapter members should vote for them. This gave every slate and every delegate the opportunity to engage in friendly electioneering without the structure you’d normally see in a GBM. 

Ballots for delegates were sent to chapter members by the IED on May 23rd and the vote closed on May 28th. From April 25th to May 28th, several candidates (from all three slates) introduced themselves in our chapter Slack, answered questions from members, and engaged in voter outreach. The final deadline for the chapter to submit a delegate roster was June 6th, about 7 weeks after the motion setting the election rules was first submitted.

Hopefully, this clarifies the timeline of events. It is fair to say that this was a tight timeline, but that was largely due to inflexible deadlines imposed by National DSA. The chapter Steering Committee made it a goal to inform everybody of the logistics promptly while giving chapter members enough time to submit statements For and Against the election rules, introduce slates and their platforms to members throughout the chapter Slack, engage in appropriate electioneering and do voter outreach. Of course, there is always room for improvement — like dedicating more spaces for internal politics/organizing discussions and electioneering — but I think given the time constraints, and given that we expanded upon previous years’ precedents for convention preparation at the May GBM, we sufficiently achieved this goal. 

A Defense of Electioneering

In the wake of the delegate election results, a few members came forward with accusations of unethical behavior directed towards the Onward Slate and the Steering Committee, including a chapter member who recently wrote an article in the Washington Socialist.

The author of that editorial asserts that communicating about the delegate election primarily through Slack presented ‘barriers to participating in internal political debate and discussion.’ It’s definitely reasonable for a newer chapter member to feel overwhelmed by the behemoth that is our local Slack — and we should make an effort to improve the Slack training in our New Member Orientations — but Slack is our default method of communication and houses 1,780 out of around 2,400 Members in Good Standing. Hence, it’s reasonable to use it as the main vessel for internal communications, as we have done for many years. Moreover, the Steering Committee sent out informational chapter emails in the lead-up to the election and when nominations opened, which were also included in the Weekly Update. 

They also mention that information regarding the delegate election and slate lines was not found on our public facing website. There has never been a precedent of posting slate information on official chapter resources and we only put candidate statements on our Member Portal. We made a point to dedicate official communications to logistics rather than slate conversations precisely because we didn’t want any chapter communications to be seen as endorsing any particular slate — it would be a good opportunity for a future IED to create spaces for debate and discussion around the difference in slate platforms in a venue outside of Slack. The IED had considered attaching slate platforms to the ballot but ultimately didn’t, presumably because there was an independent candidate. I think it would make sense to attach slate platforms to the ballot in the future.

The author also points out that members had no opportunity to discuss or present their stance on a particular slate at the April and May GBM. We did hold coordinated breakout groups during the May GBM where folks could discuss their thoughts about the future of the chapter, the socialist movement nationally, our strengths and weaknesses, as a means of fostering internal political discussions. When putting the material together, we consulted previous steering members from the last convention, looked at previous convention election materials we could find, and referenced national materials to try and cultivate political conversations in ways the chapter had never done before. Even still, I think the author’s claim is a fair criticism — we should have more opportunities to debate the differences in slate platforms in an open forum.

At the same time, those resources were limited: Previous convention elections didn't have information about slates on chapter resources outside of Slack and the guidance from National referred to more general political conversations like the ones we had at the May GBM. Additionally, the notion that the chapter happy hour after the May GBM was ‘an informal environment that is more easily exploited by people with central roles in the chapter’ seems like a stretch. I participated in multiple different conversations with folks with various opinions on convention and DSA in general. I thought it was fruitful even though we didn’t always agree. While the Onward Slate is large and composed of some members with central roles in the chapter, no barrier prevents people from conversing with their fellow chapter members and expressing their viewpoints. One of the major tenets of organizing is talking with other chapter members and seeing where you have common ground.

Speaking personally, I ran for delegate for the 2021 National Convention when I was a relatively new chapter member and lost. That doesn’t mean that I wasn’t doing good organizing work, but instead that I wasn’t known to a large portion of chapter members and didn't do much campaigning to change that. Winning elections solely by virtue of being an active chapter member is improbable — candidates must make themselves known and make a concerted effort to persuade voters that they are worth representing members at the national level. In other words, it is impossible to win without voter outreach.

Another point addressed is that the “approval voting” method — overwhelmingly democratically decided on by the general body — was advocated for during the April GBM a couple of days before we announced the slate. It’s true; we announced the slate after the April GBM because that’s when nominations opened. We announced our slate before the vote to switch to approval voting, and people were able to add statements For or Against if they felt compelled. None did.

One thing the author mentions that is specific to me as Chapter Secretary is the Minutes for the May GBM having not been posted at the time the article was written. That is true, but not due to some nefarious or even negligent reason. I had been having technical issues with uploading Minutes; it has finally been fixed. I could’ve been more communicative with the rest of the chapter about this issue, and I apologize for the delay.

I’d like to address this entire paragraph from Sam D’s piece: 

The Onward slate was built around steering committee members who themselves were elected by running a slate the size of the steering committee slots. This is a pattern. It is one that emphasizes central control of chapter efforts and the elimination of public discussion so paper members can be shuffled around via secret email lists. When there’s no room to articulate political views except in private chats or mass emails, those with the most reputation and weight of authority behind them win. This feeds a dangerous cycle where select leaders develop their own reputations and internal power at the expense of broader participation and political development of the chapter.

Members of the Steering Committee indeed ran on this slate together, for the same reason we all ran on a slate for Steering together — because we have a shared vision of how we want socialism to grow both locally and nationally. Our slate comprises working group and campaign leaders from all across the chapter, which is reflected in our collective support for prioritizing national-level campaigns that unite us across chapters. Our slate members’ experience winning campaigns locally informs our focus on tackling campaigns nationally. For example, we think tactics such as collective days of action, easily accessible phone banks, and coordinated local campaigns under a national umbrella can build organization-wide solidarity and a sense that all our members are working collectively toward a shared project. 

I would encourage more people to run for steering this year to create a more competitive election and debate around visions for the chapter. 

The claims that steering emphasizes central control of chapter efforts, eliminates public discussion, and utilizes secret email lists are all unsubstantiated. Where is the evidence of this? Assuming the “secret email lists” are referring to the voter outreach list the Onward slate utilized to whip votes in the lead up to the election, this is often considered standard practice. The Onward Slate leaned on the personal connections slate members have made with other chapter members and reached out to as many people as possible to ask for their vote. There is no secret here. We each just looked at who we had connected with in the chapter and reached out to them individually to encourage them to vote for our slate. Many DSA chapters, unions, activist groups, etc, across the country utilize this practice during internal elections. This is a key part of internal organizing and should be encouraged, not demonized. In fact, we encouraged other slates to do the same.

At their best, internal debates and elections can bring new people into active participation in the chapter and help reactivate older members who have fallen off. Contacting members about internal elections wouldn’t work if it wasn’t from trusted comrades around a shared vision.

It’s also true that the other slates in the election leaned on personal contacts in the chapter to electioneer. That’s good! We should have internal political groupings that are open about their politics, bringing members into the process by which we set the course for our organization. I believe that it is clear that the main complaint being levied here is not whether it is fair or ethical to campaign in an election but about the results of that campaigning.

Additionally, I would like to address this paragraph from Comrade Sam: 

“A political victory does not always correspond with collective consensus. Any claims that Onward won the election and therefore should self-determine its behavior at the convention should be ignored—the slate is answerable to the membership, as any elected body is. Complaints about electioneering and procedure should be seen for what they are when misapplied—the weaponization of accountability to secure a political line and isolate that line’s opponents.”

This is veering into concerning, anti-democratic territory. The Onward slate ran on a platform, the general body overwhelmingly voted for us, and so we will represent the members at the National Convention. How else does one determine collective consensus if not through democratic elections? What would selecting representation look like otherwise? How does one determine what is and isn’t electioneering other than through adhering to the election rules that the general body voted for? The primary alternative suggested was that leadership in the chapter or various branches should’ve mandated proportional representation for different branches and working groups, rather than having a public debate and vote between competing political visions. We need to be very cautious about normalizing any attempt to delegitimize our democratic process. The Onward Slate is indeed answerable to the membership, and the membership has made their voice heard. I think the author should respect the will of the general body.

One accusation that’s not in the article but that I’ve seen tossed around in the local Slack and Twitter is that our Steering Committee used official chapter resources to help the Onward slate win the election. Nothing could be further from the truth. This is a false and conspiratorial allegation. At no point were any member data, official chapter communications or administrative functions used to aid a particular slate in the election. That kind of undemocratic behavior would be a disgrace to our chapter. This is a serious allegation that we do not take lightly. 

For A More Robust Internal Democracy

There are crucial lessons to be learned here on both sides. While I disagree with the accusations of wrongdoing, I think it’s worth listening to the folks who have said the Onward Slate felt overly competitive to them. In retrospect, we didn’t really need to run 40 people for 38 seats (and four alternates). We cast a wide net of experienced chapter members, expecting a lot of them to decline (which some did), but were surprised by how many agreed to join the slate. While no rules stipulate slate size, I can see how that would feel overwhelming for those who ran against us. I don’t think we anticipated our entire slate winning wholesale. I think if the results had looked more like we anticipated when we planned the slate, there would have been little or no controversy.

But the core issue here is a disconnect about our chapter's informal norms around internal elections and political debate. The chapter and the organization only work if everyone feels valued and respected. We run on these unwritten rules and norms, but also, unlike written rules, they are constantly changing and hard to handle. The unwritten rules about how elections in this chapter should work have swung wildly over the past few years. I think people were just not on the same page about our norms. This is a very important conversation for us to have in order to rebuild those shared norms.

If there is one solution, it's to up our level of internal political education and encourage debate about the norms under which we operate. Longer-term members will remember that at one point, this chapter was hyperfactional, and campaigning was far more negative and polarized than we saw in 2023. Thankfully, that environment dissipated as the chapter matured. But as we’ve built consensus on many issues and brought in more and more new members, we’ve also lost our shared agreement on how these elections should function, and many members were caught off guard by the overtly political nature of internal elections and active campaigning. Among longer-term members and people in other democratic organizations like unions, the idea that asking people to vote for you could be considered disrespectful or violate norms never really crossed anyone’s mind. As we rebuild these norms, we can hopefully have a consensus on best practices for running a slate, debating ideas, and conducting voter outreach to cultivate a healthy democracy.

Additionally, there were concerns about some members of the Onward slate encouraging folks to bullet vote (“vote for our slate and only our slate”). This was a strategic decision that many members of the Onward slate decided not to utilize, but it has been fairly standard practice between competing slates in the chapter in the past. While this practice does not violate election rules — and I think it’s an open question as to whether or not it should be encouraged — I can certainly understand why it would make some people uncomfortable. That said, I would encourage the folks who have decried this tactic to ask themselves how ardent they are about engendering their vision for socialism at the national and local level. There is no question that the members who comprise the Onward Slate have a shared vision and are organized to ensure that vision is represented at the National Convention. Other slates could have and should have done the same.

The general membership of Metro DC DSA can’t be tricked into voting one way or another. The way they vote, be it on the structure of the chapter, or the way we conduct elections, or in contests for elected positions is a signal from the people who make up our organization. When the membership doesn’t support something, it will change. I don’t think a single chapter in the organization has been led by a single faction or held a single political orientation for more than a few years. Our chapter and every other chapter have had fundamental shifts in leadership and politics over the years. If things are going poorly or people disagree with leadership on political questions, the votes will go the other way. Our members pay attention to what’s happening; when they vote a specific way, it means something. If the membership starts changing politically or thinks things in the chapter are going badly, things will change regardless of who has the most internal contacts. To imply that unengaged or disengaged members were disinformed is untrue and also displays a lack of respect for the agency of our individual members and the will of the collective itself. Some members might disengage for any number of reasons — they have kids, they grow older, they have disabilities, etc. — but they pay dues because they care about the success of the organization and have an opinion about the development of our chapter. Engaging with them and encouraging them to vote in important elections is vital to the health of our chapter. 

We can all disagree on which voting system is the best, which tactics are better than others, and how to engage in future elections. Still, I think it is essential that we identify these as political differencesnot a process error or evidence of wrongdoing. We are experiencing significant growing pains as one of the largest chapters of the largest socialist organization in the US grappling with the potential for real power and political relevance. We are a serious political organization evolving at a time when the political stakes are extraordinarily high. We cannot afford to give in to the toxicity of infighting when a climate crisis is upon us. We cannot afford to be subsumed by emotional turmoil when our marginalized comrades are at risk of escalating right-wing violence. We cannot afford to revert backward into irrelevance when we’ve made inroads with labor unions amid a resurging labor movement. The time to fight is now, and how we engage in that fight will require rigorous democratic buy-in and relentless organizing.

As my fellow Steering Committee members so eloquently put it during their presentation on the importance of internal democracy at the most recent GBM: “We agree on the goals of socialism, but often disagree on strategy, tactics, and sometimes even principles. If we want to be democratic and mass, we must be engaging in politics.” 

Related Entries