Fusion voting and independent politics

Fusion voting was once ubiquitous in the United States, legal in every state of the union.  With the rise of relatively powerful third party and independent political movements in the late nineteenth century, state legislatures dominated by the Democratic and Republican parties began banning the practice, and today it is prohibited in all but eight states.

Fusion voting allows a candidate for public office to obtain the nomination of more than one political party.  This article will provide a short description of two prominent forms of fusion voting, take a closer look at how Oregon’s new electoral fusion system has begun to affect the state’s politics, and sketch out the contours of the ongoing struggle for and against the open ballot across a number of states.

New York State is well known for its fusion voting system, in which the endorsements of minor parties are often actively sought by candidates for public office.  In 2009, when Independent Michael Bloomberg was elected mayor of New York City, it was the votes he received on the Independence Party’s ballot line that provided him with his margin of victory over Democrat Bill Thompson.

This can be determined precisely because New York practices what is known as “disaggregated fusion,” in which the candidate’s name is listed on the ballot line of every party that has nominated him or her for the given office, thus allowing voters to indicate a specific party preference when casting a ballot for a candidate with multiple endorsements.

In an article for Talking Points Memo from 2007, Dan Cantor of the Working Families Party described the practice in the following way:

“fusion allows a candidate to run for office as the standard-bearer of more than one party. Suppose the WFP decides to cross-endorse the Democrat. That candidate will show up twice on the ballot, and voters will get to choose to support him or her on the party line of their choice. The votes will get counted separately but then added together to determine the final outcome of the race.”

This is not the only form of electoral fusion, however.  Under so-called “aggregated fusion,” a candidate’s name is listed only once on the ballot, and the names of the various parties that have nominated him or her are listed alongside his or her name.  Thus, under this form of fusion, it cannot be precisely determined how many votes a given candidate receives as a result of any particular cross-nomination.  Nonetheless, these nominations are highly prized.

Take the case of Oregon.  Effective as of January 1, 2010, Oregon SB 326 repealed a “provision prohibiting elector[s] from participating in more than one nominating process for each partisan public office to be filled at general election,” thus allowing candidates for partisan public offices to receive nominations from more than one political party.

With over 54,000 registered voters, the Independent Party of Oregon is the state’s third largest political party.  The party’s nomination is now being sought by three candidates for governor, six candidates for US House, and seventy-seven candidates for the state legislature, including Independents, Democrats, Republicans, a Pacific Green and a Libertarian.

Given the Independent Party of Oregon’s support for various electoral, structural and political reforms, fusion voting will likely strengthen movement toward their implementation.  According to news reports, the party plans to hold an innovative primary nominating election in July online, via a process of secure electronic voting, in the first such vote of its kind statewide, if not also nationwide.

In terms of political strategy, electoral fusion obviously also allows minor parties to band together in order to mount a stronger opposition to the candidates of the major parties, and thus represents a clear threat to the dominance of the reigning two-party system.  For instance, the Green Party candidate for governor of New York, Howie Hawkins, recently called on the state’s Working Families Party to consider a coalition with the Greens, arguing that “power for working people comes from their independent political action, not acting as a faction of the Democratic coalition.”

Over the course of the twentieth century, the major parties almost succeeded in completely exterminating electoral fusion and open ballot voting in the United States.  Their efforts continue to this day.  In 2007, an effort to outlaw fusion was narrowly defeated in Delaware.  The state legislature of South Carolina is currently considering a set of bills that would prohibit electoral fusion there.

However, as the case of Oregon demonstrates, the proponents of electoral fusion and the open ballot have achieved some success in recent years, and comparable efforts are underway in Georgia and Colorado.  The Democratic and Republican parties reflexively oppose any reforms that would weaken their duopoly on elected office and empower the people independently of the major party apparatuses.

The struggle to maintain and expand the use of the open ballot in the United States is a significant source of resistance to the two-party state.