DSA’s Convention Agenda Isn’t Perfect. We Should Adopt it Anyway.

An argument for moving forward with the current agenda for the 2023 national convention.

The release of the 2023 DSA Convention agenda and the accompanying full results of the delegate survey last week kicked off a flurry of questions and debate in the convention Slack. The Convention Resolutions & Platform Subcommittee, which drafted the agenda based on the delegate survey results, answered delegates’ questions in the delegate slack and clarified the process that was used. After reviewing the subcommittee’s description of the process and considering the survey results, I ask delegates to consider the merits of the agenda and think carefully about using up time on procedural motions to change it. If we make good time during debate blocks, then I would support adding additional items.

The Delegate Survey: An Explainer

The delegate survey had three components. It asked delegates: 1) for each proposal that was either eligible for the consent agenda or that was not automatically agendized whether they supported or opposed that proposal, with an option to abstain; 2) for each proposal that was eligible for the consent agenda, whether they wanted it on the consent agenda if it received sufficient support in the first question, with an option to abstain; and 3) for each proposal that was not automatically agendized, their ranking in terms of priority for debate time during the convention. These first two questions were essentially the same questions that were asked on the 2021 delegate survey, in Google Forms; no ranking was done in 2021. In 2019, both a consent agenda poll and a rankings poll were done using Opavote. 727 delegates filled out the survey in 2019, which is both more delegates and a higher ratio of delegates than filled out the surveys in 2021. However, this was the first year that Jotform was used for the delegate survey. What became apparent after the poll launched is that the ranking function in Jotform was incredibly burdensome to use, particularly on mobile devices and in light of the number of proposals delegates were asked to rank. As a result, many delegates either skipped the rankings entirely, or only re-ranked a few items before giving up and leaving the rest in their default order. The committee sought advice from a mathematician who advised that other than throwing out any ballots where delegates hadn’t re-ranked any items, there wasn’t much that could be done on the timeframe involved to improve the data, other than comparing the “expected ranking” of a proposal (where it fell on the default ranking) to its average ranking to give some insight into how often delegates bothered to move up or down a given item. As a result, decisions the committee made were based primarily on delegates’ responses in the first two parts of the survey.

Creating the Agenda

The committee agendized items primarily based on support scores in the poll. The one deviation from agendized items in their categories (consensus resolution amendments, constitution/bylaws changes, etc.) based on support score was that the subcommittee unanimously agreed to prioritize debating amendments to multiple consensus resolutions, rather than hearing additional amendments to the electoral resolutions.

The five-person committee, with members drawn from Bread & Roses, Communist Caucus, Socialist Majority Caucus and more, drew up this agenda through near-unanimous consensus. While agendizing items based on support scores does mean polarizing items are less likely to get debated, the convention–as the highest decision making body in DSA–isn’t only a forum for debate. It’s also a place for the organization to ratify new work and continuing priorities that enjoy broad support, so the new NPC can work to implement what the majority of delegates want to do. It’s reasonable to prioritize debating items with more support and to let delegates shape a wide range of DSA’s work. Like most delegates, some of the proposals I had hoped to see enacted are on the agenda, while others that I supported didn’t make it.

Agendas must be made with time constraints in mind. I have attended multiple previous conventions when items I cared about deeply, which had enough support to be on the agenda and to pass, were tabled because earlier items on the agenda took longer than expected. We must prioritize what we debate and recognize that not everything can be debated. Taking up time with procedural motions can make an imperfect agenda significantly worse, by limiting the time we can spend on actual substantive debate.

What’s Next?

Delegates should reject calls to add more items to the consent agenda. Past conventions have spent precious time on motions to take items off the consent agenda because they turned out to be more controversial than anticipated, and later debating these items. The resolutions and platform subcommittee placed only those current items on the consent agenda with enough support in the delegate poll to clear the ⅔ threshold required to keep items on the consent agenda. Attempting to add items below that threshold to the consent agenda can end up being a waste of time. If no one rises to oppose an item, debate will end after motivation. If delegates believe an item is widely supported enough that it should pass without debate, a non-debatable motion to call the question (ending debate and moving to a vote) should pass easily by 2/3rds vote–and take up less time than a messy fight over the consent agenda.

If a dozen people were separately tasked with creating an agenda based on the same survey and the same time constraints, they might create a dozen slightly different agendas. As any organizer who has had to set an agenda where members have submitted more items than can be discussed in the time allotted knows, prioritizing one item over another poses difficult questions that can be reasonably answered in a host of ways. Even with the delegate survey results a few decisions are still difficult. Few people wound up with everything we wanted and compromise is essential to democratic decision-making.

We should not shrink the plenaries, lunch time, or other items on the schedule. Debate can be draining as well as exhilarating and by the end of a session many if not most of us will need a break. Delegates need time to use the bathroom and otherwise take care of ourselves and one another. All of us have different physical and mental limitations. Unbroken hours and hours of deliberation can prevent some delegates from being able to participate fully in key debates and decisions. The plenaries are also an opportunity to come together and hear from parts of the organization that we don’t otherwise hear from and to have an opportunity to connect over what unites us as DSA members.

One of the strengths of Robert’s Rules is that it provides clear ways for participants to amend a meeting agenda. But I ask delegates to be mindful of spending time attempting to amend the agenda on Friday because this eats into time for debate on the meaningful business of DSA. I encourage all delegates to responsibly manage debate time as we move through the agenda. Call the question and refrain from repeating points others have made. Socialist Majority member Renée Paradis, a member of the Resolutions and Platforms Committee, noted in the convention Slack that she committed during the subcommittee’s deliberations to moving to reopen the National Electoral Committee consensus resolution to hear further amendments to it–ones that she personally opposes–if we finish the agendized business before the convention closes. If we finish the items for other debate blocks ahead of schedule, then I would support adding further items to the agenda.

In sum:

  1. Trying to add items to the consent agenda is unlikely to save us time since it’ll take longer than voting on the items. Think carefully about spending time amending the agenda on Friday since this would eat into time for substantive discussion.
  2. Let’s keep the plenaries and lunch breaks. They are there for a reason: we will need a break and the plenaries are an important opportunity to build solidarity.
  3. Let’s finish our business and only add items if we have time left over during debate blocks.