Factions: A Hard Electoral Problem

Factions: A Hard Electoral Problem


Comrade Sean Duffy wrote a great article. I respond to it here, but I won’t summarize it, because then you might be tempted not to read it for yourself. I disagree with their conclusion that proportional voting systems such as the STV are ill-suited to our internal elections. 

Duffy writes, totally correctly, that DSA’s and Chicago DSA’s focus should be on “contesting power… externally for the whole of the working class.” Our external operations will be on behalf of the whole working class only to the extent that the whole working class is welcome in our chapter and represented in our decision-making. For political-economic reasons, this implies the formation and collaboration of political factions within the chapter, which in turn requires proportional representation of these factions in our official decision-making processes.

Those political-economic reasons begin with a practical concern.


Our members, especially working-class people, don’t have a lot of free time. That’s why struggle to make quorum or find candidates for our elected positions. This problem figures into the strategies we use to vote. 

Let me ask you, the reader-comrade, a question. During the 2021 delegate elections, which had 72 candidates, more than ever before, did you personally thoroughly research every one of the 72 candidates to compare and rank them? So far, among every CDSA comrade I’ve asked, the answer to that question has been a variation of, “No, I frankly did not have time to do that. Instead, I…”  

These comrades needed shortcuts to evaluate and rank the qualities and qualifications of the many candidates whom they did not already know very well. Such shortcuts necessarily take the form of signals; small bits of information from which voters can construct a broad, reasonably accurate image of the candidate’s trajectory if elected. These signals can come from the candidate, who communicates what they intend to do if they win, or from someone else, a trustworthy agent which vets candidates for competence or consistency. 

As the number of candidates increase, and as the breadth and depth of the issues being debated increase, ordinary voters operating under time constraints become increasingly dependent on those signals. Whether those signals come from the candidates themselves or from caucus/slate affiliations, they serve to sort and align candidates and even voters into discrete tendencies, often associated an official organization structure. This is how I define factionalization. 


When Duffy says “both non-partisan candidates and voters are at a disadvantage under STV,” they are correct, but we should understand that, as our chapter expands, regardless of our voting framework, non-partisan voters and candidates are bound to comprise an increasingly small part of our electorate and elected seats. The prognosis is not fatal – a sufficiently popular candidate could win without any factional support – but the pattern is fixed. A candidate who does not align themselves with any specific tendency or faction within the chapter is making themselves relatively obscure and opaque to voters, a poor electoral strategy regardless of which electoral system is used.

Duffy seems to anticipate this point and alludes to a response. They explain that in the 2019 election, “only 155 voters (or 36% of the electorate) cast ballots with ‘partisan discipline’ where their top candidates were all from one caucus or slate.” Even beyond the undefined concept of “top candidates” (where is the cutoff line?), there are two limits to this analysis. 

First, Duffy uses the strictest possible measure of partisan voter affiliation – voters who included one un-caucused friend in their “top candidates,” but otherwise ranked all members of their favorite caucus as highly as possible, would not be partisan by this definition! So our takeaway is that, in 2019, already over a third of the CDSA electorate was literally as partisan as possible.

Second, Duffy declines to make a similar calculation for 2021, and because they do not make their formulae public (or perhaps only because I cannot find them), I cannot run the numbers myself. Ultimately, despite Duffy’s hard work, we lack data on the trajectory of factionalization in the chapter. We have only the political-economic reality that factions represent a shortcut in candidate evaluation, on which voters will be increasingly dependent as the candidate count expands and as DSA seeks to involve more members with limited time.

If, as I argue, the development of factions representing divergent political tendencies is unavoidable, that’s a really serious problem for us to solve. As Duffy notes, we have to avoid “a DSA made up of tendencies and factions that are unwilling to work together because of political differences perceived to be irreconcilable.” And Duffy is further correct that our voting systems play a key role in relationships between factions. 


How do we manage factions within DSA? One option is to declare the plurality faction to be the one which holds power and the rest to be subordinate factions, which may hold some popularity among the membership but which will not be represented among leadership. Such a solution would be the one achieved by a disproportionate election system. It would be, in the short term, highly productive, because we would not have to waste time generating a consensus among the actual membership. We could instead rely on a genuine consensus among leadership, which would simply not represent the chapter’s membership in its full diversity of opinion.

If you were in a non-plurality faction under such a framework, how would you feel about that? You’ve convinced a good number of DSA comrades that your perspective should be heard, but that popularity isn’t represented in leadership. Perhaps you have a few representatives, but the chapter’s leadership doesn’t reflect how popular your ideas really are. It never will, unless you become the new plurality. Would you tolerate that? Maybe if your political position was so close to that of the plurality that your disagreements were ultimately insubstantial. But otherwise? 

If I led such a non-plurality faction, I would probably try to lead it out of DSA – and if we stayed, I would not pretend to tolerate that intolerable state of affairs. 

Ultimately, when only one faction is represented to the extent of its popularity among the membership, in fact well beyond the extent of that popularity, everyone else’s perspectives are necessarily dimmed and marginalized on critical issues facing the chapter. Unheard people always eventually leave the space where they are unheard, make trouble in that space, or, worst of all, stick around but stop speaking up. This does not constitute the collaboration of factions that Duffy and I seek – it is only an artificial victory covering organic dispute.

Under a proportional election framework, minority factions are not be treated as pluralities, nor pluralities as non-pluralities. The plurality is still given the most power, befitting the fact that it has convinced the most voters. When each faction is given due recognition, corresponding to its support among the members of the chapter, this constitutes a fair table on which political discussion and even negotiation can proceed.

Duffy argues that in such a system, “members…are forced to bow to any grouping, whatever their politics or their approach to DSA, that can muster the small percentage of voters needed to win representation under STV.” I disagree that a small minority coalition winning a small minority of seats means the rest of the chapter must “bow” to them. To be made to collaborate with someone with whom you disagree is not to be made to bow to them. In fact, it’s under the Borda count that minority factions would be forced to “bow”  to the disproportionate power of the plurality faction. 

Healthy collaboration does not take place without conversation. A healthy conversation does not take place when one voice is artificially made louder and one is artificially made quieter. For factions to work together, they must be proportionally represented. In sum, our multitendency organizing goals demand the fair and proportional representation of each tendency in our official decision-making. 


Duffy is again correct that the ultimate question is “who decides how big the tent is and who it is open to?” They propose a “big tent [held] together [by] our points of unity, shared vision and goals, and our willingness to work together through the organization.” I understand this in my own words to be an organization in which the range of political vision among the membership is limited enough that the average voting member feels sufficiently represented by the plurality. One might more poetically describe such a DSA as speaking with one voice, internally and externally. This may seem like a DSA free of factions, but really it’s a DSA with only one faction. 

If I have described Duffy’s vision correctly, I share their faith in its efficiency, but we would need another organization to represent the whole working class, including a robust internal debate and election process in which even very disparate visions are given representation. Without such an organization, the nightmare Duffy describes, of siloed factions unable to collaborate across dispute, becomes the reality not only for DSA but for the entire American Left. 

Where Duffy and I agree is that our choice of an electoral system must be entirely dictated by the range of perspectives that should be, in the long term, represented in our decision-making. I hope to see the chapter further engage this question directly, uncomfortable as it may be, and whatever consensus we develop will imply a way forward in our electoral planning and in many other important matters.