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FUSION VOTING November 12, 2006

Posted by wmmbb in Global Electoral Politics.
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In the recent midterm elections, one ballot question in Massachusetts proposed the adoption of fusion voting. This voting method is modification of the simple plurality, winner take all, voting system that allows minor parties and interest groups to appear on the ballot paper nominating a candidate of a major party. For example in the recent election in New York, voters for The Working Families Party recorded their votes, which were then added to the total won by their nominee Senator Hilary Clinton. The Massachusetts initiative was defeated by a 65% No vote.

Thus it seems that inertia and the status quo won over change. At least two major newspapers expressed opposition. The Boston Herald merely said that this modification to the two party system would benefit the left, a more significant argument than it first appears. The Boston Globe premised its editorial on three grounds. They argued that competition between the major parties could be better achieved by other measures, such as campaign finance reform, as if parties in a democracy were not about other values such as participation, access to power, interest aggregation, and the formulation of government policies and programs. They argued that voters would become confused, a doubtful proposition since voters usually revel in any opportunity to cast strategic votes. Then they suggested, as the experience in New York shows, that such voting would be used to buy favors, thus ignoring the fact that size of the campaign chest held by the major parties is taken as a direct indicator of the number of votes that will be won.

According to Wikipedia:

Electoral fusion was once widespread in the United States. In the late 19th century, however, as minor political parties such as the People’s Party became increasingly successful in using fusion, Republican-dominated state legislatures enacted bans against it. One Republican Minnesota state legislator was clear about what his party was trying to do: “We don’t propose to allow the Democrats to make allies of the Populists, Prohibitionists, or any other party, and get up combination tickets against us. We can whip them single-handed, but don’t intend to fight all creation.” (Spoiling for a Fight, 227-228). By 1907 the practice had been banned in 18 states; today, fusion as conventionally practiced remains legal in only seven states.

Democrats, as in North Carolina, also successfully sought to make fusion voting illegal, and thereby critically weaken their opponents.

In the Tar Heel State [in the last decade of the nineteenth century], the Populist and Republican parties disagreed on certain national issues, such as the tariff, the gold standard, and silver coinage. The parties, however, agreed on many state issues, including education, voting rights, and restoring the charter of the Farmers’ Alliance.

It became apparent in 1892, when Democrat Elias Carr (1839-1900) won only a plurality of 48.3% votes in the three-way race for governor, that Democrats were in trouble. Rather than entertain growing Populist demands for economic reform, county self-rule, and increased educational funding, the Democratic legislature spitefully repealed the charter of the North Carolina Farmers’ Alliance (which was blamed for the emergence of the Populist Party) and instituted tighter restrictions on the election process.

On August 1, 1894, the Populist Party convention endorsed a combined slate for state offices. On August 30, the Republican Party convention followed suit. The die was cast.

In the 1894 election, the Fusion alliance of Populists and Republicans swept the state. Fusionists won control of the legislature, elected several Congressmen, and secured some statewide offices. . . Perhaps the greatest legislation of Fusionist rule was ensuring that all political parties were represented by election judges at the polls and requiring designated colors and party insignias on ballots so that the illiterate had a political voice. The reforms were highly successful and popular. The election law alone led to an increase of registered voters by over 80,000. . .
In November, the Fusion legislative victory was impressively larger than in 1894. The entire statewide slate of Fusionist administrative officers was elected. Republican Daniel L. Russell handily won election as governor.For the first time since Reconstruction, Democrats were totally out of power. There were only twenty-six Democrats in the 120-member House, and only seven in the fifty-member Senate. All statewide offices were in the hands of Republicans or Populists.

One of the most interesting aspects of Populist-Republican Fusion rule was the service of African American office holders. There were approximately 1,000 elected or appointed black officials, including Congressman George H. White (1852-1918). Although black Tar Heels were still underrepresented, the presence of black officials troubled Democratic white supremacists.

In the 1898 “White Supremacy Campaign,” led by future U.S. Senator Furnifold M. Simmons (1854-1940), chairman of the Democratic Executive Committee, the Democratic Party used identity politics to regain power. “Negro rule” and “Negro domination” became the catchphrases of the campaign. Josephus Daniels (1862-1948), editor of the Raleigh News and Observer, was the unabashed press spokesman for white supremacy. Red Shirts, reminiscent of the Klan, intimidated blacks and thereby limited the number of Republican votes.

Shortly after a resounding victory, Democrats disfranchised African Americans and thereby ended a possible Republican resurgence.

Thus this story suggests that it was not so much that fusion caused confusion to voters, or otherwise did not work, but that it worked too well for the powers that were dislodged, whether they were Democrats or Republicans.

The problems of the existing voting systems typically go unnoticed, as does history. In the last two elections in the United States, the recent midterm and the presidential election, 40% of the potential voting population cast ballots. One way to increase participation might be to increase the viability and vitality of third parties providing challenge to entrenched power holders from fringe groups whose numbers are not effectively counted since perhaps many of them do not vote. In 1992, Ross Perot and the Progress Party, achieved 19% of the vote in the presidential election, but in the past two elections only 2% voted for minor parties. Given the winner take all voting system, voting for minor parties is widely considered a wasted vote.

Despite the failure in Massachusetts, fusion is alive and well in New York, despite the criticisms from The Boston Globe. The Working Families Party, which sounds to me like a Labor Party, is achieving potential tangible and intangible gains for its members. They report access to candidates and office holders which would otherwise not be so accessible. Furthermore, I was struck by Hilary Clinton’s victory speech, which seems to me to provide evidence that their policy agenda is taken seriously.

Senator Clinton’s speech is here:

The question for an office holder with fusion becomes the margin of victory, because in this system a minor party can withdraw its support or decide not to give it

It is true that fusion voting, as a modification to the first past the post system, is seen as inferior to other potential voting systems, including preferential voting. And as Ross Perot demonstrated in 1992, and to some extent Senator Lieberman demonstrated in Connecticut this year, with the support of New York Mayor Bloomsberg’s machine, third parties do not lack for support.

Voting systems are not accidents. They are the products of history, of circumstances and opportunistic choices, as much as constitutional arrangements. There is a conflict between top-down legislative measures, which typically restrict voting, and bottom-up democratic initiatives. The sticking point is that bottom-up electoral reform is essentially about providing rights for minorities, or those otherwise marginalized by the existing status quo. So achieving 35% for the Ballot Question in Massachusetts was about as much as could be expected.

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Comments»

1. THE GOVERNANCE OF AUSTRALIA « DUCKPOND - July 8, 2007

[...] their would have to be negotiation between the parties before the election in a manner similar to fusion voting. This would be preferable to the current situation which I regard as deceptive, especially given [...]


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