Ratification: An Experiment in Participatory Democracy

(I wrote this piece to be included in the SDS 2007 Final Convention Bullitin which included the notes and copies of all the proposals passed at the SDS National Convention in Detroit)

At the 2007 National SDS Convention in Detroit many members expressed concerns about the legitimacy of our power as a decision making body. Many were concerned about a group of people making national decisions while the majority of members remained disconnected from SDS as a national organization. We dealt with the question of how to develop a vision and structure in a way that was democratic and included as many people as possible and that was legitimate. After all, who was to say that chapters who weren’t represented at the national convention would adhere to the vision, structure and guidelines that we had decided on? We also were concerned that after decisions were made at the convention there would be no way to challenge them—even if a majority of SDS chapters turned out to be against what we had decided. In lieu of all of these concerns, I and several others realized that we needed to formulate a way in which decisions could be approved or challenged that involved as much of our membership as possible. Thus, the ratification proposal was born.

Under the ratification proposal, which was passed at the convention, all of the decisions made at the convention are viewed as resolutions which are “binding pending ratification”— meaning that we can implement or begin to implement the decisions we made but they must undergo the ratification process, which can challenge those decisions. Ratification is the process by which all decisions made at the convention will be sent to all active, existing SDS chapters for approval or rejection. This process is being carried out by the Ratification Collections Committee. This committee was created at the convention and approved by the present membership to be an administrative body whose purpose is to complete all the work necessary to carry out the process and to collect and tally the results. The process for enacting and completing ratification involves several important steps.

First, we needed to find out which SDS chapters actually exist and are active. This is being done through a census project, which was started before the convention even happened by the Outreach Committee of the 2007 National Convention Planning Committee. The Outreach Committee started to contact chapters to find out which ones were real and created an impressive list–which they posted on the SDS wiki project (newsds.org/wiki).  Members from the Ratification Committee and other dedicated SDSers have continued and completed this project, though the list will have to be constantly updated considering how fast SDS is growing. People who worked on the census project used the criteria that we voted on at the convention to decide if the chapters that they contacted were legitimate.

Another important step of the process is to collect a comprehensive list of all the proposals passed at the convention. Because a number of the proposals passed at the convention were amended, combined, and edited on the floor, final versions of them were not “officially” circulated and remained in the possession of the authors until all of them could be collected for composing the ratification ballots. Several people took on the task of gathering these so that they could be included in the ratification ballots.

Once the ballots were complete, they were sent out to all chapters by email. Chapters will have the responsibility of printing out hard copies for those members who may not have internet access. Chapters will have approximately two months to discuss the proposals, vote on them as a chapter (in any way they see fit) and send their results back to the committee. The committee will then tally and circulate the results, via listserve, to the organization as a whole.

The committee is made up of 20 SDSers from the Midwest, Northeast, Southeast, and the West of diverse race, gender, and class backgrounds present at the convention. The committee was approved by the convention body, and in the interest of keeping its accountability and diversity it is not open to new members–but it is meant to be an administrative group that is completely transparent. Therefore, any SDSer is welcome to sit in on our conference calls and join the listserve (search "ratification collections committee" on google groups) and we are always looking for people who want to help get work done!

The proposals that will be included in the process are limited to just those proposals classified under Vision and Structure—because Action proposals were time sensitive—and just to the proposals that were passed by the convention body. Approving one proposal does not preclude chapters from approving any other proposals. The ratification process will also serve important functions in implementing our new national structure (if it is ratified, of course) that was approved at the convention.  For example, the ballots have sections where individual members can sign up for different tasks and working groups in the new structure.

The ratification process was “designed for the purpose of implementing a democratic decision making structure”, or rather, as a democratic decision making structure to use in the absence of anyway to formally and accountably make decisions as a national organization. It fills an important niche. This process will turn out to be vital in shaping the future of our organization since it is the first attempt to accomplish anything as a national organization— excluding planning the national conventions.

This dedication to, and implementation of, participatory democracy on a large scale that is necessary for ratification is unprecedented in the recent history of new SDS. The Ratification Process serves as an important break from the SDS of the past as we push away from a national organization focused on centralized infrastructure and centralized decision making, and instead toward an organization that involves as many voices as possible and embodies the values and institutions that we want to see in a future society.

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