In Defense of Online Voting in Boston DSA

Building radical, direct democracy at the chapter level.

The recent article authored by Boston Refoundation members entitled “Towards Solidarity & Democracy” argues that the proposed Boston DSA amendment for online voting reifies neoliberal conceptions of democracy, alienates rather than empowers DSA members, and unfairly privileges those who have the time and prowess to dominate online voting discussions. These beliefs stem from fundamental misunderstandings regarding both what online voting is and the nuanced arguments being made by its proponents.

As democratic socialists, we call forth a vision of maximal democracy that transcends truncated notions of liberal democracy and allows people to have a direct say in decisions affecting their lives. We indeed “recognize that we are a Chapter of 1400 people… [with our] own individual challenges,” but we believe that, insofar as is possible, these individual challenges should not prevent members from participating in our collective governance. Building a robust, direct democracy requires implementing a variety of measures to ensure that all are included and informed, and we view both in-person and online deliberation as complementary and necessary.

In order to understand how in-person voting and online deliberation complement each other, one must first scrutinize the argument that in-person voting automatically builds the sense of community and trust necessary for “creat[ing] solidarity and effectively organiz[ing],” while online voting fosters passivity and atomization. Our current system of monthly, two-hour long, in-person meetings clearly has not built the sense of community and trust necessary for a democratic socialist organization. Numerous Boston DSAers have frequently been unable to attend monthly meetings (see various member testimonials here), and members that do attend meetings often report that they feel too unprepared, uninformed, and/or intimidated to speak their minds on the proposals under consideration. Cadre members across the Boston DSA political spectrum dominate chapter meetings. Many new DSAers and non-cadre members initially interested in become more involved in the work of the chapter have frequently reported feeling alienated by their meeting experiences. Rather than integrating less involved and newer members into Boston DSA, our meetings have instead deepened the gulf between active and inactive members.

Online voting rectifies this by maintaining monthly meetings while also allotting for a longer online discussion and voting period. Though the internet can indeed be a toxic place, it is not a uniquely toxic place. As explained above, we have seen numerous instances in which in-person DSA meetings have become toxic, and it isn’t accurate to attribute toxicity solely to online spaces. And given that elected, highly-involved, or otherwise well-known DSA members wield disproportionate power at in person meetings, it is misleading to claim that online voting is uniquely at risk of being dominated by people with greater levels of social capital.

If we instead recognize instead that all approaches to democratic deliberation — whether they be in-person or online — are susceptible to being dominated by undemocratic forces to different degrees and in different ways, then two questions arise: 1) how can we optimally design democratic deliberation procedures so that they will be resilient against anti-democratic attack?, and 2) how do different, optimally designed democratic deliberation procedures compare with one another in terms of minimizing the potential harm done by anti-democratic attack?

Regarding question 1, there are a number of ways that we have implemented-person and proxy voting with an eye towards limiting the possibility of undemocratic participation within Boston DSA. During General Meetings and other DSA meetings, we use a progressive stack to prevent some individuals from dominating discourse over others, and we agree to a Code of Conduct against harmful and inappropriate behavior.

Online voting could also be designed to include these exact same safeguards. For example, we can limit members on the number of times they can post to individual voting threads in a way that mirrors the intentions of the progressive stack (note: many proponents of online voting are agnostic on this question of thread limitation, but it is important to note that limiting membership posts is technologically possible and could be implemented if democratically agreed upon during the online voting implementation process). Furthermore, through good moderation practices and consistent norm-setting, we can effectively respond to harassment, bullying, and inappropriate behavior in online voting spaces in a way that emulates our chapter’s Code of Conduct.

Looking at question 2, it is clear that both in-person voting and online voting can be designed to curtail the threat of undemocratic influence. But it also becomes clear that online voting has distinct advantages over in-person voting. Even with the use of a progressive stack, in-person General Meetings are simply too short to allow more than a handful of DSA members to speak up. Conversely, a one week long, online voting period that includes an in-person discussion forum allows far greater opportunity for all interested DSA members to not only speak their mind, but also take the time to learn about the issues being discussed, listen to their comrades, and better formulate their own thoughts.

And even if one was to assume that it was technologically impossible to limit the number of times members could post to individual voting threads, it is much easier to tune out or skim excessive online posts than it is to ignore excessive in-person speaking. If one person or a faction of people dominate a two hour long in-person meeting and numerous members lack sufficient context or knowledge regarding what is being debated, it is easy for these members to become overwhelmed and swayed by demagoguery. Conversely, if one person or a faction of people attempt to dominate a one week long online voting period, members might very well be frustrated and annoyed, but they would have much more time to gain adequate context and deeper knowledge about what is being debated, seek alternative viewpoints, and make a more informed vote. Members certainly do not need to be continuously online for the entire week in order to educate themselves on the pertinent issues being voted upon and parse the variety of viewpoints offered by fellow Boston DSA members. We trust the ability of our comrades to make informed decisions if allotted the proper time and informational resources, and we feel that implementing online voting certainly aids such decision making.

The Refoundation article also claims that the online voting amendment “changes Boston DSA from an organization that primarily debates and decides matters in person into one that will primarily do so online,” but this language again assumes that online voting supersedes rather than complements in person meetings. Much of the work being done in DSA, whether it be reading group discussions, political education workshops, new member orientations, or organizing canvasses, is being done through in-person interaction. Members continue to recruit friends and comrades into the organization by directly talking to them, and some members even organized in-person neighborhood meet-ups in Cambridge and Jamaica Plain to talk about the issues that will be discussed at the General Meeting on September 15th.

In short, in-person meetings are far from dead, and DSA members will continue to grow and thrive by interacting and learning from one another in real life. What well-designed online voting does is expand Boston DSA members’ ability to meaningfully participate in governing our chapter, while also minimizing the amount of undemocratic influence on chapter voting. With this expansion of democracy, formerly inactive, online voters will feel less like spectators and more like autonomous actors who are motivated to attend in-person meetings and play an active role in Boston DSA. And this end-game is certainly not a capitulation to neoliberalism, but the apotheosis of democratic socialism.

(the image used above is from The Nation magazine and can be found here: https://www.thenation.com/article/in-the-year-since-trumps-victory-democratic-socialists-of-america-has-become-a-budding-political-force)