Transcript: Fusion Voting

Questions for Richard Winger:

1. Could please explain, as simply as possible, what fusion voting (search) is?

Fusion voting is a procedure when the law permits two parties to jointly nominate the same candidate. Sometimes it’s called fusion but sometimes it’s called dual-nominations, sometimes it’s called cross-endorsement.

2. How is fusion voting still a protest vote, if the candidate is a member of one of the two major parties?

If a major party nominee also is the nominee of some minor party, people in some states that permit fusion have a choice of which label to support the candidate under. Which, that is they can vote for the candidate under the major party label or under the minor party label.

And you might think ‘well, what’s the difference what label the voter votes for the candidate’ but it does send a message because if the voter chooses to vote for the fusion candidate under the minor party label the voter is signifying "Hey I like this candidate but I don’t necessarily like the major party he or she is associated with, in fact, I really agree more with the minor party than the major party, but I still like this candidate."

3. How has fusion voting been successfully used in the past?

There’s two different ways that fusion voting has been used successfully, the first way is a major party nominee and member gets his or her own major party’s nomination but the candidate gets the nomination of the minor party as well. And if it’s a close election, that candidate who received the nomination of both a major and a minor party sometimes — he needs those votes from a minor party label.

The totally separate function of fusion voting is an entirely different situation. That’s when a minor party member gets his or her minor party’s nomination and that same person is also able to capture a major party nomination, which happens more frequently than you would expect because in state legislative races around the country, shockingly, three-eighths of the races have… one of the two major parties doesn’t run anybody. 

So in those circumstances it’s easy as can be for a minor party person to also grab the major party nomination, ‘cause there’s no competition for it. And when that happens, the minor party nominee being listed on the ballot both under his or her own minor party’s name and under one of the major party’s names has a much better chance of winning the election than a normal minor party person does.

4. Why is fusion voting banned in most states? And what is being done to change this?

Fusion was once upon a time legal in every single state in the United State. Most states banned it in the 1890’s. In the 1896 presidential election the Democratic Party candidate was also nominated by the People’s Party (search). And the People’s Party was a very important party back then. It had elected a whole bunch of congressmen in 1894, pulled over a million votes and back then that was about 15 percent of the total.

So it was a big deal for the democrats and the People’s Party to fuse. The Republicans didn’t like that at all. The Republicans still won the presidential election in 1896 and afterwards they just set about making fusion illegal. But they didn’t do it in every state, and it’s still legal in about 10 states.

5. Does fusion voting hurt growing minor parties, by taking the protest votes away from them?

I’ve never believed that fusion hurts minor parties by taking away votes from their own members to some major party person. I just don’t believe that fusion hurts any political party.

I believe strongly that if political parties are allowed to make their own choices about who they are nominating, they know better than anybody else what’s good for them and I believe very strongly that fusion is good for major parties and minor parties.

6. Is it conceivable, that say, in New York, there was a Green Party (search) candidate running and he was strong but he didn’t garner the favor of, say, the Working Families Party (search) (a fusion-based party) who instead of putting him on their line, they put a Democrat on the line. Couldn’t that be seen as harmful to the Green Party in New York State?

If there was an election in New York State with the Green Party involved, the Working Families Party involved and, say, the Democratic Party involved and the Green was in a big struggle with the Democrat, it’s true of course that the Working Families Party throwing their support to the Democrat would hurt the Green. but that’s just politics.

And I must say the Working Families Party probably wouldn’t even exist if fusion didn’t exist. Because the Working Families Party is only interested in organizing in states that allow fusion.

7. What do you say to people who think voting for a minor party is throwing away your vote?

There’s hardly any more powerful vote, than voting for a minor party. My favorite story concerns the Prohibition Party (search) and how we got prohibition.

There’s only seven presidential elections in all U.S. history where it’s clear that a minor party tipped the ballots as to who won. And in two of them, the Prohibition Party tipped the winner.

In 1884, the Republicans would have won the presidential election and elected James G. Blaine except that Cleveland beat Blaine in New York State by 1100 votes. The Prohibition Party pulled 25,000 votes in New York State that year and the Prohibition Party nominee was actually a former Republican governor of Kansas. So it was obvious that most of the people that voted Prohibition would have voted Republican if the Prohibition Party hadn’t been running.

People were so sure the Prohibition Party cost the Republicans that election that the Prohibition candidate was burned or hanged in effigy all over the country right after the election by angry Republicans.

But then it happened again in 1916. Charles Evans Hughes, the Republican presidential candidate, would have won the election except he lost California to Woodrow Wilson by 3000 votes and there the Prohibition presidential candidate got 32,000 votes in California.

And again, the Prohibition candidate was an ex-Republican governor, this time of Indiana. So again the Republicans lost the election because of the Prohibition Party. So right after that election, Republicans were just sick of losing the presidency because of the Prohibition Party and prohibition issue.

So the Republicans in Congress finally voted for the Prohibition Amendment to the Constitution. That amendment had been sitting there since 1875, and Republicans would never support it. They changed their mind, even though it was not in the Republican Party platform, they passed it.

The Southern Democrats always went along with it, they wanted prohibition. And that’s how we got prohibition, just because of a little minor party that never pulled more than three percent of the vote.

That’s interesting, and almost an argument against third parties (laughs).

Well, people always want to argue about prohibition, but that’s beside my point. I always have people that do that.

Thank you very much Mr. Winger.

Questions for Lisa Disch:

1. Can you tell us a little about yourself and your book “The Tyranny of the Two Party System?”

Well, the book grew out of an organizing effort that I participated in Minneapolis and St. Paul, where I am an associate professor of political science at the University of Minneapolis. And we worked in the mid-'90s to revive fusion voting in Minnesota, which has been against the law here since the turn of the 20th century. By cross-nominating about six candidates, actually for the general election, between the New Party and the Democratic Party. They were all Democrats so this was a left fusion initiative.

2. Could please explain, as simply as possible, what fusion voting is?

Fusion voting is actually so much simpler than it sounds. Fusion voting is when one candidate runs on the ballot line of two or more political parties.

This is different than an endorsement because we know an endorsement doesn’t go on the ballot. In the case of fusion, the parties team up together behind a single candidate but they retain their distinct identities on the ballot, which enable their constituents to cast… to become part of a coalition and be counted as part of that coalition so it differs significantly as a strategy from the big-tent political parties that we’re used to thinking about in the U.S.

Where once you decide to sign on behind say, just say for example, Wesley Clark, you disappear into his broad coalition and you are no longer counted, you are only visible as that Democratic voter.

But in the case of fusion, let’s just take the last election as an example, in 2000, if the Green Party had fused with the Democratic Party for Al Gore, you could have cast your vote for Al Gore as a Green Party member. And Al Gore could have looked at his final tally and seen that 10 percent of his votes came from the Green Party. And that 10 percent is then leverage for the Green Party who can ask for policy, and who can threaten to withhold their votes this time around. And as close an election as we had in 2000, that 10 percent would have made the difference in the outcome for example.

3. Can’t the argument be made, that a growing minor party could be hurt by something like that? Wouldn’t their ideas just be absorbed into, say, the Democratic Party and they would cease to exist?

It is a very common argument against strategies like this that they do lead to the absorption or co-optation of the minor party because, in a sense, you are both keeping and losing your distinct identity.

You're keeping it because you get your ballot line and you get to be counted, but you're losing it because you are not running an independent, your not running your own candidate. This is a valid objection to the strategy of fusion.

However, in a two-party system, where it takes…you have to be the first past the post to get any representation in government, fusion is an effective strategy. It’s a more effective strategy than what’s left open to third parties by the two-party system which is that their issues get co-opted anyway but they don’t get any credit whatsoever for them.

Or they put their voters in the very uncomfortable position of having to choose between holding their nose and voting essentially against the person they least want in office, or voting for who they really want to vote for and knowing that they may well swing the election to that least preferred alternative.

4. How is fusion voting still a protest vote, if the candidate is a member of one of the two major parties?

It depends upon the context. It is not an effective protest vote if the election is not closely contested and if the established party that a minor party was fusing with didn’t give any concessions in terms of policy, or possibly…you know, you could give judicial appointments you could give patronage appointments if you still had those.

If that kind of accountability between the two fusing parties is not in place, and if the election is not close enough that the minor party votes on its ballot line make a genuine difference, (then) fusion is not much of a protest vote at all.

But fusion can influence the policies and sometimes even the candidate choice. In the 19th century, oftentimes these fusion agreements…the minor party timed its conventions so that would actually influence the candidate choice of the established party that they intended to fuse with and that was a tremendous power.

But fusion is very much a context-sensitive strategy, and I suppose I should say that many of our elections today are technically landslides because of the kind of precision with which our legislatures now go about the business of proportionment. That fusion may not have a lot of leverage over the current system. Elections are simply not competitive enough for what a minor party can deliver on its ballot line to have much of an effect.  

5. How has fusion voting been used in the past successfully or unsuccessfully?

Fusion was used very successfully in the nineteenth century by the Populist Party to pick…to have a majority in some state legislatures in the western states particularly... it’s been more effective as a strategy on the state level than it has been on the national level.

At that time it made a difference to have power at the state level because there were many more resources that went through the state legislatures and we were not as centralized a nation.

So, for the People’s Party to have a majority, say, in Nebraska, or Kansas, was one place where they were very strong, that actually meant quite a lot in terms of being able to bring returns for their voters. And it meant that the People’s Party was a vital party for about 12 years, which is a longer run than most third parties see today.

6. What do you say to people who think voting for a minor party is throwing away your vote?

(Laughs) Well, I ask them if, particularly if they are Democrats. I ask them if they don’t feel as if they are wasting a vote when they repeatedly elect candidates who are running towards a center that is increasingly moving right.

And how meaningful is your vote when you're not getting the return for it that you want, ideologically, or in terms of principle, or in terms of policy.