More Choices, More Voices: A Primer on Fusion

October 2, 2006

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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.

Fusion, also referred to as cross-endorsement or open ballot voting, is the practice of multiple political parties nominating the same candidate for the same office. In our hypothetical election between Mr. Smith and Ms. Jones, Mr. Smith might appear on the ballot as the nominee of not only the Democratic Party, but also of the Progressive Party and the Labor Party. Ms. Jones might be nominated by the Conservative Party and the Family Values Party as well as the Republican Party. And there may still be minor parties who nominate other candidates, as well as independent candidates who have petitioned onto the ballot without securing a party’s nomination.

The candidate who receives more votes than any other still wins the election. The difference is that voters who support the policies of, for example, the Family Values Party may register that support by voting for the Family Values ticket without “throwing away” their votes on candidates with no realistic hope of winning. Imagine that Ms. Jones wins the election with 51% of the total vote, and 10%—or one-fifth or her total—comes from Family Values voters. Those voters will have sent her and the rest of the state a message that they could not have sent had they faced a choice between voting on the Republican line or voting for a “spoiler” Family Values nominee (thus handing the election to Mr. Smith, whose policies they find much more objectionable than Ms. Jones’s).

In 43 states and the District of Columbia, this scenario cannot happen: a candidate may not accept the nomination of more than one party.

In the seven states that permit fusion—Connecticut, Delaware, Idaho, Mississippi, New York, South Carolina, and Vermont—a candidate may receive the nomination of more than one party. Fusion takes place only during the general election and does not affect the primary process directly, although it may indirectly influence the parties’ choices of which candidates to nominate. Typically, the major parties nominate different candidates, while minor parties may cross-endorse one of the major party candidates, fuse with other minor parties, or run a candidate without any cross-endorsements, depending on their own political judgments and principles.

Two variations on fusion exist. In New York, the state where open ballot voting has had the most significant impact on elections in recent history, the ballot lists a candidate multiple times, once per party, if the candidate received multiple nominations. This gives voters the choice of voting for Ms. Jones as a Republican or Ms. Jones as a Conservative or Family Values candidate. In other states, such as Mississippi and Vermont, candidates nominated by multiple parties appear only once, but with the names of all of the parties that nominated the candidate listed. When voting for Ms. Jones, voters cannot indicate which of the parties that nominated her they support.The New York system is greatly superior and is the focus of this paper.

New York ballots organize candidates by office and by party (a party-column ballot). In ork City and the City of Albany, the ballot lists the offices down the left-hand edge, with all of the candidates for an office organized together as a row, and lists the parties across the top of the ballot, with all the candidates from a single party together in one column. The columns and rows are reversed elsewhere in the state. If a candidate receives the nomination of multiple parties for the same office, the ballot lists the candidate once for each political party. When boards of elections tally the results of the election, they list separately the number of votes cast for each candidate under each party designation in addition to declaring a winner based on the total number of votes each candidate receives.

States that permit fusion generally require that candidates consent to any nominations that they receive. In New York, a candidate for non-judicial office who seeks the nomination of a party that the candidate is not a member of must receive the permission of the party’s executive committee. Some states also prohibit the major parties from fusing with each other, while permitting minor party fusion.