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Fusion balloting: creating more and better choices for American voters

(crossposted at Attack of the Machine Elves)

A few days ago, I discussed the need for ballot access reform as a crucial first step in opening up the American political system and removing the shackles placed upon it by the Republican and Democratic parties. Today, I’d like to discuss another equally important element of political reform which I believe is a necessary co-requisite to ballot access liberalization: electoral fusion.

Fusion balloting, which is also referred to as cross-endorsement or open ballot voting, refers to the practice of allowing multiple political parties to nominate the same candidate for the same office. This cross-endorsement can open up several possibilities for minor parties operating within the constraints of a political system like ours here in America, in which two parties are dominant: these minor parties might, for example, choose to cross-endorse candidates nominated by one of the two major parties, or to cross-nominate each other’s candidates, or to run their own candidates without any cross-endorsements, depending on what their political and strategic priorities are. At present, fusion balloting doesn’t affect most voters because it’s only allowed in eight states: Connecticut, Delaware, Idaho, Mississippi, New York, Oregon South Carolina, and Vermont.

In the "first-past-the-post" system prevalent throughout the United States, fusion balloting (in the few places where it is practiced) doesn’t alter the fundamentals of how elections are decided–the candidate with a plurality of the popular vote still wins the election (or, in the case of a presidential election, the electoral votes). What’s different is that, for people who might be inclined to support minor parties on ideological grounds, fusion balloting makes it easier for them to do so without feeling like they’ve thrown away their vote. In the absence of viable minor party options on the ballot that better reflect their political beliefs, many people choose to either vote pragmatically for the lesser of two evils or just stay home and not vote at all, rather than casting their votes for the minor party candidate. Fusion balloting, however, opens up the possibility for these voters to cast their ballots for minor party candidates that actually have a realistic chance of winning. And in cases where a major party candidate is cross-endorsed by minor parties, it allows these voters to register their vote in a way that helps to move the Overton window toward their political beliefs and nudge the major party in the direction of the minor party’s political platform.

To give an example of how fusion balloting accomplishes this, let’s look at the example of a hypothetical congressional election in a state where fusion balloting is allowed. The Democrats endorse John Smith as their candidate, and the Greens cross-endorse Smith to represent their party on the ballot as well. Smith wins the election with 52% of the vote, with his Republican opponent receiving 48% of the vote. However, 8 of Smith’s 56 percentage points came from Green Party voters. By casting their vote for Smith on the Green Party line in a close election, Green Party supporters have sent a clear message to Congressman-Elect Smith and the Democratic Party that Smith wouldn’t have won without their help and that their votes shouldn’t be taken for granted.

There are two different types of fusion balloting: one in which candidates with multiple nominations are given a separate listing on the ballot for each party they’ve been nominated by (for purposes of our discussion we’ll refer to this as multiple-line fusion balloting), and another in which candidates with multiple nominations are listed only once along with the names of every party that’s nominated them (which we’ll refer to here as single-line fusion balloting). Single-line fusion balloting, which is used in all states that allow cross-endorsement except New York, has been relatively limited in its political impact because it doesn’t offer a way for third-party voters to indicate which party they are supporting and thus demonstrate the political importance of their votes. Multiple-line balloting is used in only one state, New York, but it has demonstrated itself to be clearly superior to single-term balloting in terms of its political impact. It was used effectively in the 1930’s by Republican Fiorello La Guardia, who overcame Tammany Hall’s death grip on political power in New York City by getting elected mayor on a fusion ticket and by becoming the first anti-Tammany Hall Mayor to be re-elected. It has also been utilized in the modern era by the Working Families Party, which has used its political leverage to nudge New York Democrats to the left on a number of economic issues and to help secure a minimum wage increase in the state.

Like the trend toward prohibitive ballot access laws over the last century, the rollback of fusion balloting has its historical roots in the implementation of the secret ballot beginning in 1888. Prior to the introduction of the secret ballot, cross-endorsement was more common–ballots were either printed by the parties themselves or created by the voter, and the government played no role in determining which organizations could call themselves political parties or how they nominated their candidates. However, with the secret ballot came the need for official ballots that were designed and printed by the government, which led to the question of who should be included on the government-printed ballots and set the stage for the implementation of ballot access laws and prohibitions against cross-endorsement. Restrictions on ballot access and fusion balloting were used consciously by northern Republicans in an attempt to snuff out the Populist and Progressive movements of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, and they have generally had an increasingly chilling effect on the political impact of minor parties within the context of American politics over the last century.

If we are to achieve the goal of a truly open and representative political system, we must work to inflict a one-two punch on the Republican/Democratic duopoly by seeking liberalized ballot access laws that make the ballot more accessible to minor parties, and laws allowing multiple-line fusion balloting in order to help minor parties achieve political relevance. Cross-endorsement will encourage the formation and growth of third parties by encouraging their support among people who might otherwise be inclined to either cast a pragmatic vote for one of the two major parties, or just not cast a vote. It will help to energize voters who are currently disengaged from the American political process. And for those of us who are progressives, it will give us an important tool to shift the Democratic Party and the American political dialogue in our direction, and finally achieve some of the change that, up till now, our elected Democrats have been paying mere lip service to.

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