Why Referendum and Recall
An introduction to two convention proposals
The unprecedented Democratic Socialists of America membership boom in 2016 signaled the growth of a revitalized Left in the United States, with the potential to build a mass socialist organization. Yet, despite the political opening DSA offered to new members eager to participate in and shape the direction of the socialist movement, the national structure of the organization remains unchanged five years later. The organization runs essentially the same as it did when it was created in 1982. There are still only 16 members of the National Political Committee (NPC), who each theoretically represent nearly six thousand members of the organization—they represented 375 each in 2015.
The only constitutional changes have been to eliminate honorary chairs, remove gendered language, and to strike a privilege that allowed the NPC to reduce votes needed to pass constitutional amendments from two-thirds to simple majority. Apart from these, there have been no substantial changes to the form or governance of DSA. No matter how you look at it, the dynamics in DSA have changed but the organization has not changed to keep up with them.
The Tempest Collective has made two proposals for the 2021 Convention to amend the DSA Constitution: National Referendum (C2) and For a National Leadership Elected by and Accountable to DSA Members (C5). Both proposals look technical in the proposal compendium, so in this article we will explain what the proposals are meant to do, how they work, and a few responses to some comments we have heard.
National Referendum (C2)
The first of the two proposals is straightforward: establish a binding national referendum in DSA. This is based on a 2019 Convention proposal that Dag A. of the Libertarian Socialist Caucus advanced but was never heard for lack of time.
The motivation is simple: we need a mechanism for democratic decision-making between conventions. Right now, there is none. The NPC alone directs DSA once they are elected, without any checks from the membership. Polls exist in the constitution currently, but they are advisory only, and to even call one requires a petition of half of all DSA chapters or a third of all DSA members. That is such a high bar to clear that it is unrealistic for members to meet it—polls will never be used in practice.
We are not in the 1980s. The internet makes it possible for us to have directly democratic participation without it being overly burdensome. We have experience with this in DSA through the NPC-initiated 2019 poll on whether to endorse Bernie Sanders for President, which was one of the more engaging things that has come from DSA National.
The devil is always in the details, so how would this work?
First, the proposal establishes that decisions can be made by direct, online referendum. Binding referendums can make any decision that the National Convention could make: set policy, direct the NPC, and amend the constitution. Currently, the DSA constitution can only be amended at the National Convention—as a rule, we only want the organization to change with the consent of the widest representation of the membership. We included this as a feature of referendum because direct votes sent to the entire membership maintain that principle, and the last two conventions have pushed bylaw changes to the bottom of agendas where they die. We have to wait another two years to even have the potential to hear them again—having a referendum allows us to make changes if the political will is there.
This brings us to a question that is both practical and political: how easy will it be to call a referendum? We do not want them to be so easy to call that we are constantly being petitioned—undermining the cohesion of the organization—nor do we want them to be so hard to call that they never get used.
The resolution proposes three ways that a referendum can be called: 1) by vote of the NPC; 2) 10 percent of chapters can petition for it; or 3) a petition of 1 percent of members, to a maximum of one thousand. This allows some flexibility in how a question can be called, recognizing the different levels that exist in the organization (national, local, rank and file). Currently there are 240 chapters: you would need 24 chapters to sign on if you go the local route. If we have 94,000 members, you would need 940 members to sign on to a petition directly. Keep in mind that for a convention proposal to be valid, it needed one hundred signatures, and many people did not clear that bar. If there is a burning issue, members have an avenue to bring it before the entire organization, but it has to have serious support.
After that, it is simple: a referendum is announced, the NPC encourages (but does not have to organize) deliberation on the question online and in chapters, and a vote is taken 45 to 90 days later. Quorum is 10 percent for most questions, but 15 percent to change the constitution (with the same two-thirds threshold it takes to amend it at conventions). The Sanders poll had roughly 25 percent participation, which is actually very high for an organization like ours. Chapters frequently have between 10 to 30 percent of their rosters routinely active, so a minimum of 10 percent was used in the proposal. At 94,000 members, 9,400 votes are needed for a referendum to count, or, 14,100 to change the constitution.
Recall and transparency (C5)
The second proposal is directed at transparency and accountability for our elected leadership. Currently, members have no ability to remove someone from the NPC. In 2017, the convention elected Danny Fetonte to the NPC. Information came to light just after the convention ended that he was an organizer for police unions, and members were furious. There was no ability for rank and file members to remove him, and the other members of the NPC decided that they did not have the grounds to kick him off the leadership. Fetonte eventually quit after the uproar, but he very well could have stuck it out if he wanted to. We need the ability to recall our leadership. Socialists have historically included recall rights as part of our democratic vision, dating back to the Paris Commune of 1871, but also carried through the union organizing of the Congress of Industial Organizations (CIO). The method is essentially the same as referendum (above), a petition of 1 percent of the membership or 10 percent of local chapters can initiate a recall. 60 percent of respondents must vote affirmatively for the recall to succeed.
Likewise, we need information about what is happening in our national leadership bodies for basic accountability. Some will say that accountability is choosing not to vote for someone at the next election if you do not like what they do. However, even on that logic we still need information about what decisions are being made and who is making them to inform our votes in the next election. The proposal says that all votes, except for executive session, will be roll-called, (so we see who voted on each question they take up). That includes any online votes taken between NPC meetings. It also gives a definite time frame to post minutes: three days after they are approved.
Two last parts in this proposal: 1) NPC committees that are appointed have to meet within six weeks of being put together—if they do not, they are disbanded. That way we do not have ghost committees that do not really exist. 2) If there are NPC vacancies, DSA members will elect people to fill these positions rather than having the NPC appoint them. If the vacancy is within six months of the next convention, the NPC can appoint (it does not make sense to go through the motions of electing someone who is going to be replaced in a few months).
So, this proposal does have more moving parts than the referendum proposal, but the ideas are all related. These questions came up in 2019 with the “NPC Transparency Pledge” (most NPC candidates signed it!), which stipulated the same things: roll call votes, prompt minutes, no abuse of executive session, and so forth. Our proposal gives this some teeth by codifying these into our constitution and bylaws.
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Andy Sernatinger View All
Andrew Sernatinger is a labor activist and member of DSA in Madison, Wisconsin. He is a member of the Tempest Collective and has written for New Politics, International Viewpoint, Jacobin, and In These Times .