Against Dissolving the Chicago DSA Electoral Working Group

One of the current co-chairs of the Chicago DSA Electoral Working Group has recently proposed dissolving that same working group into five or more subcommittees each tasked with managing a different facet of the chapter’s engagement with electoral politics. The primary rationale for the proposal is that the creation of these additional subcommittees will somehow reduce the workload and the incidence of burnout among those members who engage with electoral politics under the auspices of the chapter.

This proposal is ill-conceived. It is much more likely that such a reform would result in dramatically more work for everyone concerned, at the same time as it would gravely jeopardize the electoral work of the chapter. Disbanding the EWG and creating a new pluricentric endorsement process in time for the next round of elections in early 2020 would be a logistical nightmare that would risk crippling Chicago DSA’s capacity to act decisively during a crucial election cycle. At the precise moment when another Bernie wave could be washing over the DSA, we would be mired in indecision and procedural gridlock and unable to effectively mobilize new members in support of a cohesive slate of candidates.

The proposal to dissolve the EWG has two primary justifications. First, we are to believe that this is the only way to forestall burnout among EWG co-chairs. Second, it is argued that the current structure of the endorsement process gives too much power to members on the north side, and that a decentralized model is necessary to secure the interests of south side members.

These arguments do not hold up to scrutiny. The structure of the chapter does not currently allow for the EWG’s responsibilities to be reasonably taken up by the branches, and there are a number of much less drastic solutions that would reduce the workload of the EWG co-chair(s) that do not require dissolution of the working group with all the logistical chaos that would entail.

The 2019 endorsement process was a success

Before moving on to the problems with the dissolution proposal, we would do well to recognize that Chicago DSA’s endorsement process for the 2019 municipal races has been on the whole a remarkable success. There were minor hiccups here and there and occasional bouts of acrimony, but it would be unreasonable to expect a process to have performed flawlessly the first time it was used. The EWG successfully vetted well over a dozen candidates, allowed ample opportunity for membership engagement at well-attended candidate forums, and recommended a strong set of candidates to the general membership for endorsement. Four of the initial five candidates recommended by the EWG went on to win the chapter’s endorsement, and all four have subsequently received the endorsement of the national DSA. Three candidates are still awaiting a vote of the membership, but it seems quite likely that at least one of them will win her chapter endorsement as well. That is a good track record, and is not the sort of outcome that usually signals the need for a massive organizational overhaul. Now is the time for us to identify and fix those specific flaws that exist in the process as currently constituted, not to jettison wholesale a system that is on the main well-functioning and democratic.

Workload: an organizing problem

The EWG’s most significant problem over the course of the last year has been the concentration of the lion’s share of the workload on one of the two elected co-chairs. This is, contrary to the arguments put forward in the dissolution proposal, a relatively simple problem to resolve. The current imbalance in workload within the EWG is the natural result of the EWG’s current organizational structure, which provides for a variety of defined leadership roles and areas of responsibility with vastly divergent workloads, as well as for a representational quota for the co-chair role that has resulted in one of the co-chairs being pressured into taking up a role they may have had little interest in. Because the roles of the various officers of the working group are overdefined, the reality is that any task that does not seem to explicitly fit into one of their domains falls by default onto the shoulders of the co-chairs. Since it is impossible to predict in advance all of the various tasks that the leadership of the EWG will have to perform, this results in a massively disproportionate accrual of responsibility to the co-chairs.

This is not a problem unique to the Chicago DSA EWG, and there is no need to reinvent the wheel in order to fix it. The most straightforward way of resolving this issue is to elect a steering committee with collective responsibility for the operation of the working group, and perhaps secondarily to eliminate quotas. The steering committee should have the flexibility to divide responsibilities among its members as circumstances change, as well as to add to its number during seasons of peak activity. This is, more or less, the approach adopted by Chicago DSA’s own north side branch when confronted with widespread burnout and unequal workload distribution. The solution to a dysfunctional organizational structure that results in work bottlenecks is to break up the actually existing bottlenecks, not to create many more bottlenecks spread all over the chapter.

Splitting the north side: a good idea, but not on a rushed timeline

Splitting the north side branch into multiple smaller branches is something that I and many others in the branch and the EWG have advocated for a long time. It is very much up in the air, however, whether this will occur at our next convention in June. At the last north side branch elections, the membership of the branch saw fit to elect several steering committee members explicitly opposed to splitting the branch. As such a split is a necessary precondition for this dissolution proposal to function, it cannot be sensibly evaluated at least until then and should be shelved.

Even if the north side were to be split into multiple branches at the convention, the process of organizing those branches effectively would take many months, during which it is highly unlikely they would be able to take on and faithfully execute the duties of the EWG. It is foolish to gamble on a massive chapter restructuring happening smoothly enough that everything will be working like clockwork by the end of this year or by early 2020. The appropriate time to consider this proposal and others like it would be during the lull after the 2020 primaries. At present, we should stick to making sensible adjustments to our endorsement process in order to better prepare for 2020, rather than tilting at windmills.

The current endorsement process has not disenfranchised the south side branch

The dissolution proposal claims repeatedly that the current endorsement process is in some way unfair to the south side branch because Chicago DSA’s general membership, which has a north side supermajority that is generally reproduced on the EWG, votes on whether or not to endorse all candidates. The arguments mustered in support of this claim, however, have no merit.

The meeting at which the EWG voted unanimously to endorse Jeanette Taylor, a south side candidate, that the proposal cites as evidence for the lack of south side representation at EWG meetings was exceptional: there had been no EWG meetings for several months prior and it was right before the holidays, so turnout was low (on the order of 12–14 people, compared to in excess of 30 for the previous meeting). At the other major endorsement vote members from the south side were well represented and the EWG voted unanimously to recommend Byron, another south side candidate, for an endorsement; the chapter later voted overwhelmingly (in the neighborhood of 90 percent) to endorse Byron over the objections of the handful of north side members who made capacity arguments against him. The supposed problem of the chapter membership operating as a north side bloc and giving short shrift to south side candidates simply does not appear to exist in practice.

The appropriate way to ensure that the branches are properly represented is to amend the endorsement process to give them a larger role. One solution that could achieve the best of both worlds would be to allow for the individual branches to overrule the EWG, as the chapter executive committee currently can, and place candidates that they have endorsed before the membership for a vote. This would allow for the EWG to vet candidates as normal, but for the branches to step in in cases where they feel the EWG hasn’t properly done its job, or where a candidate already has a clear enough base of support within the branch that EWG vetting is felt to be superfluous. Going forward, candidate interviews could also be held at meetings of the relevant branches rather than under the auspices of the EWG—this is another easy fix that does not depend on a wholesale reorganization of the chapter to be workable.

The proposed solution of devolving the power of endorsement entirely to the branches, even to hypothetical sensibly delineated branches that do not currently exist, is a cure far worse than the disease. Branches can already issue branch endorsements. It is profoundly undemocratic for branches to also issue chapter-wide endorsements without the support of the actual membership of the chapter. Our current endorsement process enshrines the right of the membership to have the final say in the vast majority of cases, and this is an objective we all agreed was paramount throughout the process. Removing this right from the chapter membership and allowing smaller bodies to speak in the name of the entire chapter is a step back, not a step forward. And if the dissolution proposal does not actually envision removing the general membership’s dispositive right to vote to endorse or not endorse candidates, then the entire argument that the present structure is unfair to the south side branch collapses.

The chapter needs to retain an open electoral working group or committee

In attempting to divide the current EWG into five or more separate closed subcommittees, the dissolution proposal neglects to account for the advantages inherent in an open and centralized structure. These are numerous, but the most salient follow:

  1. Communication between members involved in electoral work will be hindered in the absence of a single working group or committee to unite the chapter’s various electoral efforts. The EWG was able to draft an extremely effective endorsement procedure, including a comprehensive candidate questionnaire that has gone on to serve as a model for other chapters, precisely because it was a central body that drew together individuals with different skill sets from across the organization united by a shared passion for electoral work. This is the entire point of a working group, and the working group system has served Chicago DSA well on a variety of fronts, not just in terms of electoral politics.
  2. The electoral work of the chapter is open-ended and endorsing candidates is not the only role that a healthy electoral working group should perform. We have naturally been focusing the lion’s share of our efforts on candidate endorsements for the past several months because it’s election season, but there have been numerous proposals circulating for other projects for the EWG to adopt during the lulls between elections. Electoral reform is one, canvasser trainings are another, among many more. The reality is that election cycles occur for approximately four to six months every three out of four years. Most of the time there will not be an ongoing election. If the EWG does not exist, people with an interest in electoral politics will have nowhere to invest their efforts during these lulls, which means they’ll be less likely to still be active Chicago DSA members when election season does roll around and we have need of their expertise.
  3. A decentralized endorsement process where the branches have the final say is incapable of dealing with the simple question of deciding which branches have jurisdiction over which races, and how to divide authority between the branches in cases where races are “shared.” Wards and districts will not always adhere to Chicago DSA’s internal branch boundaries. In cases where a race spans multiple branches, how will those branches coordinate their endorsements? Such a branch-based endorsement system would result in duplicative efforts and turf wars that are currently avoided by having these discussions take place on neutral ground in the EWG.

The key advantage of the EWG is its openness: any member who is knowledgeable and passionate about electoral work can show up at an EWG meeting and have their say. The danger of this openness is that EWG meetings may be unrepresentative of the views of the chapter, which is why it is important to have checks on the EWG from democratic bodies such as the executive committee, branch steering committees, or branch meetings. But the necessity of these checks should not obscure the essential role that an open and centralized electoral working group or similar-structured committee plays in ensuring proper democratic deliberation of candidate endorsements. This is a task that cannot be devolved entirely to small subcommittees, elected or otherwise. The membership needs to have confidence that the candidates they are voting on have made it through a robust process that unfolded out in the open in full view of everyone who felt like showing up, rather than behind closed doors or at a bunch of meetings scattered all over the city. Our current process provides them that assurance. The process outlined in the dissolution proposal does not, and should be rejected.