Wednesday, November 19, 2008

A footnote to the SEP’s 2008 election campaign:

My less than brilliant career as a write-in voter

By Alex Steiner

I have previously commented on the anemic quality of the SEP’s 2008 election campaign.[1] The SEP claimed to be running a write-in campaign, (having waited to launch their campaign until it was too late to get on the ballot anywhere). But it was obvious that even as a write-in campaign, the party was just going through the motions. A small but telling indication of this is that the SEP did nothing to warn its supporters of the problems they might face in actually placing a write-in vote. As I discovered when I went to vote myself, those problems could be formidable.

I arrived at the grammar school gymnasium where the voting takes place in my Brooklyn, New York neighborhood in the latter part of the evening, when I knew the lines would be shorter, but also well ahead of the 9 PM closing time for the polls. I was determined to vote SEP, which I thought would be a relatively straightforward matter. However, once I entered the voting booth, I realized that I did not recall the exact mechanics of submitting a write-in vote and there was nothing in the voting booth in the way of instructions that would assist me. I therefore signaled to one of the poll workers that I wished some assistance.

Once I got the attention of the volunteer I explained to him what I wanted to do and he simply did not understand the concept of a write-in vote at all. I then asked him to consult with his supervisor where I hoped to have better luck. It turned out that the supervisor, a middle-aged woman with a very business-like attitude only had a little bit more knowledge than the volunteer. She understood the concept of a write-in vote but had no idea how to do it with Brooklyn’s antiquated manual voting machines. Finally, she located an instruction booklet that actually had a section explaining how to cast a write-in ballot. It seems there was a button on the upper left that you have to press down and at the same time slide over a metal fastener over a rectangular space to the left of the position for which you want to cast your ballot. The metal fastener is supposed to unlock a paper ballot where you can write in your preference.

This sounded simple enough and armed with a new degree of confidence I thanked the supervisor for showing me the directions and told her that I wanted to complete my vote. However, during the interval while I was attempting to obtain these directions, other people were waved through and allowed to vote. This created a logistical problem for the volunteers as my return to the voting booth required that they fill out a new form for me. They seemed reluctant to do this, claiming that this would “disrupt” their orderly procedures. When I pointed out that it was not my fault that asking for assistance for a simple problem should not have been the cause of any disruption, the supervisor with whom I was speaking asked me why I couldn’t just vote the “normal” way, i.e. for one of the candidates whose names were on the ballot, instead of causing trouble with my unorthodox request. I replied that I had a right to vote in whatever manner was allowed in the State of New York and casting a write-in ballot was one of the options that voters had before them.

As soon as I mentioned my rights, the supervisor’s attitude changed from one of mild annoyance to overt hostility. She then informed me that I could not go back into the voting booth to cast my ballot unless I was accompanied by two election officials. When I asked her why I should have this kind of supervision imposed on me, she claimed that the instruction booklet stated that anyone casting a write-in ballot can only do so if there are two elections officials standing by with that person in the voting booth. I could not believe the instruction booklet said any such thing and I asked her to show me where it said that. She pointed to a line where the instruction booklet stated that “If the voter requests assistance, two elections officials must enter the booth with that voter.” I explained that this sentence in the instruction manual applied to a situation where the voter was requesting assistance and I was not requesting any assistance. Now that I understood the procedure for casting a write-in ballot, I wished to avail myself of this option and cast my ballot in private as is my right.

My insistence upon my right to cast my write-in ballot in private further alienated this woman and she claimed that I could not vote until she obtained “clearance” from higher election authorities. She then got on her cell phone to make some calls. This went on for several minutes. After a while I once again insisted on my right to vote and went up to the police officer guarding the place and complained that I was in effect being denied my right to vote. At that point, the elections supervisor with whom I had been squabbling brought in reinforcements in the form of a higher election official, another middle-aged woman who sported a button on her lapel indicating that she had some kind of authority over the entire voting place. After explaining the problem to this woman she promptly echoed what the supervisor had said, that I can only vote under supervision, even though the booklet was very clear that this was required only in the case where the voter asks for assistance.

I once again insisted on my right to vote in privacy. When confronted by this unexpected rejection of her authority to dictate the terms of my voting, the elections official finally relented and said that I may vote without supervision, but I would only be given three minutes in the booth. She also threatened to find out my name and retaliate against me in some unspoken manner if my insistence on voting for a write-in candidate wound up”destroying” her statistics. Although her conditions were obviously capricious and unfair, I felt that I had at least won a partial victory and it was not fruitful to continue the argument with her. I agreed to her conditions and finally, after receiving a duplicate voting card, went in for the second time to cast my write-in vote. (I exited the first time without actually voting for anyone when I tried to obtain assistance initially.)

It was only then that I discovered that all my efforts and good intentions had been in vain. Although I followed the instructions in the booklet religiously, the slot where the paper ballot is supposed to reveal itself refused to open. I was the victim of a faulty voting machine. I left in disgust, unable to cast my ballot for the SEP.

I can only wonder how many other supporters of the party had similar experiences. Interestingly, there has been no article posted on the WSWS reporting on how many votes the party received, something that was standard practice in other party campaigns. [2] What is ironic about my little comedy of errors in the voting booth is that I was taking this write-in campaign more seriously than the SEP was.

A last point that’s worth reflecting on: what accounts for this virtual non-campaign on the SEP’s part? If ever there were an election that cried out for a socialist voice to be heard, this was it. And yet none of the movements to the left of the Democratic Party made themselves heard in this campaign, from Ralph Nader and the Greens to the various middle class radical groups. Of course the mass media adulation for Obama did much to drown out such voices, but it is also the case that these tendencies adapted themselves to the Obama campaign, either by toning down their own campaigns or abandoning them altogether.

If we consider the SEP’s behavior in this broader context, then its failure to fight for ballot status or mount a serious write-in campaign was also an adaptation to these bourgeois class pressures. Those pressures express themselves through the political base of the SEP, which is increasingly middle class college and university students, the layer of the population who most fervently supported Obama. A serious election campaign would have forced these students to swim against the stream of Obama’s popularity, and clearly this was something the party leadership wanted to avoid.


[2] One example can be found in this report written in the immediate aftermath of the 2004 election –
Socialist Equality Party gains significant support in US elections,
by Joseph Kay, 4 November, 2004


Anonymous said...

As someone who knows something about the SEP and its previous campaigns, I can say your observations are both accurate and unsurprising.

They used to announce campaigns and select candidates many months before the actual election in order to make a serious effort to achieve ballot status - which avoids the sort of problems you talk about here. Those drives to collect signatures to get on the ballot gave party members an opportunity to interact with hundreds of people on the street.

Now the whole campaign is a speaking tour of the candidate and party officials. And as you say, they didn't even publish the vote totals as they have done before.

This is all symptomatic of their new culture of suspicion brought on mostly by the threat you and your colleagues represent to them. In the past they had no problem with members mixing it up with the public. Now the message of the campaign and of the party can only be safely entrusted to the candidate and a few spokespersons. A serious campaign would have meant a serious mobilization of the membership, something I think they have an aversion to.

Anonymous said...

Dear Anon,

Your comment is really interesting and perceptive.
Would you elaborate any further?
Have you read the 10 chapter Steiner/Brenner polemic?
Steiner and Brenner never intended to threaten the movement. Without a doubt their aim was to reorient the IC to the correct political program and as you have no doubt read and seen there are serious problems here. The IC has not been able to answer any of the Steiner/Brenner critiscisms and has resorted to intellectual dishonesty and character assassination, because it simply can't defend itself against these critiscisms.
Your observation is correct, there is an aversion to any practical work; mobilising the membership for party work like gaining signatures to get on the ballot was once an important thing. Work is now confined to journalism.

Please, if you have anything else to say, feel free to comment.


Anonymous said...

Well, my last comment didn't get posted because I said some harsh things about the SEP and North. Alright, I understand that you guys probably want to keep the discussion at a certain level and not speculate about the personal motives of the SEP. I respect that.

I'll just say this then. Yes I have read all the chapters of the polemic, I agree that there is a psychology gap in Marxism and that the SEP's failure to understand it is partially responsible for their degeneration.

I also know S&B didn't intend to threaten the movement but what they intend and what the SEP perceives are two different things.

Anonymous said...

You make some fair points about the SEP's latest campaign. It was clearly quite a bit more lethargic than past efforts.

I have a hard time believing, though, that their apparent lack of interest was the result of a secret adaptation to Obama's popularity. No one has been more consistent in tearing down the fraud of Obama's campaign than the WSWS. Unless their new student recruits haven't read the website in a year, I find that political explanation a bit of a stretch.

I was similarly disappointed by their total silence over CA's Prop 8, which they finally mentioned today in an article with a peculiar analysis of the same-sex marriage issue. I don't necessarily think they're adapting to the Christian right, just that they're not to the point of a viable organization capable of responding to these issues appropriately.

Alex Steiner said...


The direction your discussion is taking is probably better done in private than in a public forum.
You may post a private message to us at

Anonymous said...

Re what MDV says about the WSWS opposition to Obama, I think you're missing Steiner's point. It is true that in terms of their JOURNALISM, the WSWS was very consistent in opposing Obama. But journalism is one thing and mounting a serious election campaign that runs counter to the huge tide of Obama's popularity is quite another. Nowhere was that tide stronger than on college and university campuses. Had the SEP mounted a serious campaign, it would have forced its newer recruits to confront that popularity head-on through political activity (petitioning, rallies, meetings etc.) and public identification with the SEP candidates. That would have tested the political mettle and allegiance of these comrades (to say nothing of deepening their political education) far more than reading a thousand WSWS articles. But the SEP chose not to do that. A political choice as significant as that cannot be understood merely as an oversight. Marxist analysis applies as much to a Marxist party as to any other political formation. The SEP’s abstentionism in such a crucial political campaign has to be understood in terms of the larger class context. As Steiner said, everyone to the left of the Democrats (Nader, the Greens, the middle class radicals) all adapted to the Obama campaign – AND SO DID THE SEP, NOT IN WORDS BUT IN DEEDS.

Frank Brenner

Anonymous said...




The SEP rejects 100% all "identity politics", which may account for the peculiarity you note. In that belated article they wrote,

"Democratic rights are under assault not because of the ignorance of the general population, or its inability to appreciate the importance of these liberties..."

I have to wonder what world they live in. Here the psychology question becomes important again. In the objectivist worldview of North & co. the answer is this, as posted in the same article:

"...but because the US ruling elite is intent on closing off those avenues that can be utilized by working people to express their opposition to worsening conditions and growing social inequality and unite them in a struggle against them"

This analysis is quite a reach, and I think anyone who even follows the news on these questions would understand that. To imply that the ruling elites are sitting in dark rooms somewhere quaking in their shoes about the prospect of a gay-straight workers alliance betrays a lack of understanding of the right's real psychological appeal.

Anonymous said...


Their analysis is quite a reach indeed. I understand the need to keep a distance from the swamp of identity politics, but they go so far as to refuse to identify the socialist movement with socially progressive values.

This is particularly unfortunate given that such an identification would be entirely keeping with the "culture of socialism" aspect represented by the WSWS' arts section.

Haugco said...

I suspect one of the main reasons that the SEP didn't report their vote totals is that they (and tell me if I'm wrong) didn't try to get recognized as a "official" write-in candidate and thus make any write-in votes for them actually count. (My state's election board made it clear to me a vote for any non-recognized write-in candidate would not be counted. I therefore voted for McKinney.) Therefore, it could be said that nobody "voted" for White and Van Auken, and thus the SEP has no vote totals to report. Shouldn't the WSWS be concerned about this violation of democratic rights?

Alex Steiner said...

The rules vary from state to state but I think you are correct that some states actually do have an official "write-in" status for candidates who are not on the ballot. For example, the following link lists the requirements for obtaining "write-in" status in Kane County:

Kane County write-in Procedures

The procedures vary not only between states but even within different election districts within a state. Here is a link to a story in the NY Times about a very rare election in which all the candidates were write-ins and the problems encountered in trying to vote for them with antiquated voting machines.

New York Times article on New Paltz write in election

Obviously a small party like the SEP cannot possibly navigate their way through all the byzantine rules for write-in status in every election district in the U.S. But having abandoned any attempt to gain ballot status for their candidates, the least the SEP could have done was to check on the write-in requirements for their candidates in a few key areas such as New York, Detroit, Los Angeles, etc. That the SEP did not even make this minimal effort in the 2008 election once again illustrates that their election campaign was little more than a postmodernist simulacrum.

Anonymous said...

I guess this is off-topic, but I'm not sure where else to post general comments about the SEP for people interested in the opposition to read and discuss publicly, so I'm going to go ahead and post here.

I just wanted to comment on North's latest article. First, I am somewhat surprised to visit these days and see anything appearing under the authorship of North. For reasons that we can only speculate on, he seems to have receded into the background of, if not the party, at least the pages of the WSWS. I would think that the leader of a revolutionary party, unless prevented from doing so for health reasons, would more regularly offer written contributions.

More interestingly it seems that whenever North does write something for public consumption, it is in the role not of a revolutionary party leader but rather of a would-be scholar trying to rattle the halls of academia until the genius of Trotsky or the materialism of Marx is properly recognized by the first-world intelligentsia, whether it is the Canadian Rockmore, the British Thatcher or Swain, or American "sovietologists" such as Pipes.

While such work is undoubtedly important, is it really to be the the chief responsibility with respect to writing of a revolutionary party leader? A comparison of the North of 2008 with the James Cannon of the 1930s and 40s would leave the former in a very unflattering light with respect to literary output, in my view. Cannon took on the cowardly left intellectuals of his day too, but he also wrote about a great deal more, on topics and in ways far more directly accessible to any literate worker or student.

Of particular interest in North's latest academic defense of Trotsky is his specific defense of Trotsky's worldview as "an irreconcilable commitment to philosophical materialism, belief in the law-governed character of the historical process, confidence in the power of human reason (to the extent that this faculty is understood materialistically) and its ability to discover objective truth."

He goes on to say,

"Trotsky was a determinist, an optimist, and an internationalist, convinced that the socialist revolution arose necessarily out of the insoluble contradictions of the world capitalist system."

It is difficult if not impossible to read these lines outside of the context of the ongoing debate North is engaged in with Steiner and Brenner. For those of us who have been following the polemical exchange, it is clear that this is Trotsky remade in North's image. Down to the particular language used it is clear that Steiner and Brenner are "on the brain", so much so that North is now essentially ignoring - perhaps falsifying - the central political theme of Trotsky's career as the leader of the Fourth International: that the crisis humanity faces is one of revolutionary leadership (the opening lines of the Transitional Program).

It would not face such a crisis if socialism arose "necessarily". Only the crisis is necessary - whether or not the revolution is born or miscarried depends on the skill and determination of the midwife performing the delivery. In short, the subjective component of world revolution, which in his terror of "voluntarism" North has flushed down the drain.

I do not believe that this is a mistake on North's part, a mere mix-up of the necessity of capitalism's crisis and the socialist revolution. It is rather another manifestation of the objectivist tendencies drawn out by Steiner and Brenner in their latest document.

And of course, if the victory of the revolution is "historically necessary", i.e. inevitable, then who needs an active and engaged party leader? Trotsky scholarship and debates with academics that are of little interest or value to the working class will suffice as an interesting pass-time until objective historical forces bring about socialism all on their own.

Alex Steiner said...


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Alex Steiner