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More Choices, More Voices: A Primer on Fusion

  • J.J. Gass
  • Adam Morse
Published: October 2, 2006

Consider a typical partisan elec­tion in the United States. Demo­crat John Smith and Repub­lican Jane Jones are the candid­ates in the general elec­tion. Perhaps one or two minor parties also have nomin­ees on the ballot, but these candid­ates are not expec­ted to poll above the single digits, let alone threaten the two major candid­ates. There might even be an inde­pend­ent candid­ate who has gathered enough peti­tion signa­tures to earn a spot on the general elec­tion ballot; but again, he is not a seri­ous contender. Over time, given the inab­il­ity of the minor parties and inde­pend­ent candid­ates to win elec­tions, their support dwindles. Voters who might agree with them ideo­lo­gic­ally do not see the point in “throw­ing away” their votes on candid­ates with no chance of winning. Even­tu­ally, such voters may simply stay home, unwill­ing either to support the major parties or to cast a futile vote.

This famil­iar dynamic may seem inev­it­able in a “first-past-the-post” or “plur­al­ity” —where the candid­ate with the most votes wins, even if no candid­ate gets a major­ity of the votes cast—but it is not. Through­out the nine­teenth century, third parties flour­ished in the United States; then as now, Amer­ican elec­tions featured single-member districts in which the candid­ate with a plur­al­ity of votes won and there were no prizes for parties that gained a signi­fic­ant minor­ity of votes. What has changed is that the large major­ity of states have banned fusion, a common nine­teenth-century prac­tice that is unheard-of in most of the coun­try today.