"Fusion Voting" – great sound and fury signifying nothing

Incorporates contributions from Ralph L. Suter & Abd ul-Rahman Lomax.

The latest pipe dream way for third parties to escape the iron grip of 2-party domination and Duverger's law is the (rather pathetic) idea of restoring "Fusion Voting," also called (more accurately) "multiple party nomination." Fusion is now uncommon in the USA, although it originally was somewhere between "common" and "universal."

What is it, and what are its claimed advantages?

Here is a description in Willamette Week:

Before they run candidates, organizers want to end the "spoiler" factor that sinks most other third-party efforts. Third-party candidates often lose out because voters fear opting for an alternative that would help elect a candidate they dislike in either of the two major parties. To get around that, Working Families wants to return to the "fusion" voting system....
For example, Candidate X could run as a Democrat but also get the Working Families Party's backing in its ballot spot. If Candidate X got 40 percent on the Democratic line and 11 percent on the Working Families line, the candidate would win with a total of 51 percent – and the Working Families Party could get Candidate X's attention on its issues.
This spring, Oregon Working Families Party founders Tim Nesbitt and Barbara Dudley met with Libertarian Party president Richard Burke and agreed to ally behind a fusion bill in the 2007 Oregon Legislature. "We may get to a place where there's a dozen parties or more," [Kari] Chisholm says. "And that would give voters more information than they currently get."

And here's what the "New Majority Education Fund" has to say:

It makes possible something that many citizens wish they could do: to cast a protest vote that counts without throwing the election to the candidate they find least desirable. Fusion also allows minor parties to demonstrate in clear, measurable terms, the level of support they provide to a candidate, thus giving them greater influence...

Fusion can also be used by "third party unity" candidates. For example, in 2006, fusion enabled Kevin Zeese to run for the Maryland Senatorship under the combined flags of the Green, Populist, and Libertarian parties. Of course, even without fusion, nothing would have prevented Zeese from running under a single flag (e.g. Green) with the other two parties just helping him with campaigning, funding, etc – or the parties could have created a merged-"party" just for the occasion (e.g. the "Green-Lib-Pop party"), giving Zeese only one ballot slot, but with a combined party-endorser list next to his name. Bottom line: Zeese got 1% of the vote, at the end of the day.

What can Fusion actually accomplish?

Not much. This maybe makes some members of some third parties feel a little more relevant and massages their egos. It maybe gives some voters a little more information (i.e. what third parties support what major party candidates, or the fact some third party candidate has several minor parties endorsing him) that they would not otherwise have had – but only if they were extremely ignorant voters. It does so at the cost of adding confusing extra ballot slots that basically mean nothing. It does allow painless protest voting, but

  1. most newspapers do not even report the vote totals in a manner that enables such protests to even be publicly visible. I.e. the newspapers report "Bush won." You'd have to search long and hard to find a newspaper that reports "Bush got 48% of the votes on the Republican Party line plus 3% on the Working Families line, totalling 51%, so Bush won and his support by the Working Families Party was essential for his victory." (I just made that data up. But my point is, this is something that is almost never reported.)
  2. Voting for somebody isn't much of a "protest," is it?

But if and when the third parties want to give voters a genuine choice by running their own (different) candidate, fusion accomplishes almost nothing. The very idea that this is somehow going to "save us" is just a ludicrous stance put forward by some very self-interested individuals (see below).

But on the other hand (Mr. Lomax points out): Fusion clearly can make it possible for a small party to grow (at least, grow in terms of vote count) without running into the spoiler trainwreck.

The real issue here is why fusion was outlawed, state by state. I'd presume that it is the same reason as why the Electoral College was corrupted by the winner-take-all rules also adopted state-by-state. The majority in each state had the power to do it, and it conveniently suppressed third parties and lower-powered groups.

What has it actually accomplished?

New York State has had fusion voting for my entire lifetime. As a result, NY State has developed many minor parties which do not even exist in the rest of the country (e.g. the Liberal Party). That may sound good at first, but the trouble is, the Liberal Party is a fake party. It almost never runs its own candidates like a real party. Its sole purpose is to provide duplicate ballot slots for fusion candidates, for which it receives payoffs from those candidates ("Put me on the Liberal Party slot and I'll pay you $$$$?" "Deal."). The Working Families Party is the same way. This all is widely regarded in New York State as a joke and yet another incarnation of the massively corrupt and dysfunctional state of its politics. Has this somehow empowered these parties and made them politically relevant in NY State? Not at all. They aren't parties, they are "our endorsement for payoffs" organizations which apparently solely benefit their bosses.

In fact, one of the few times the Liberal Party ran a genuine candidate, former Republican Jacob Javits, it caused a "spoiler" pathology causing the candidate New Yorkers wanted least, Alfonse D'Amato, to win the senatorship in 1980. Polls indicated D'Amato would have lost in a head-to-head contest with either Javits or Holtzman. Once elected, "senator pothole" D'Amato was mainly renowned for his affinity for pork and dubious ethics, and after his defeat by Schumer began a lucrative career as a lobbyist, once famously receiving $100,000 for making a single phone call.

Fusion voting was a key part of the strategy of the New Party (formed in 1992 and active for about six years). The New Party went into decline after the Supreme Court ruled 6-3 in 1997 in Timmons v. Twin Cities Area New Party that states are not required to permit fusion voting. One of the founders of the New Party and its former executive director, Dan Cantor, later became executive director of the Working Families Party, which was started in New York in 1998, partly to take advantage of the fact that New York is one of the few states that still permits fusion voting.

Another historical example: Bryan vs McKinley 1896

The Populist Party and Democratic Party and Silver Republican Party all ran William Jennings Bryan for the US Presidency in 1896 in an act of nationwide fusion. (Fusion was apparently just fine in those days and forbidden nowhere.) Bryan then lost to the Republican, William McKinley. However, the Populists and Democrats ran different Vice Presidential running mates. If Bryan had won, then his VP would presumably have been Arthur Sewell (D) or Thomas E. Watson (P). However, you had to wonder: could Bryan have split the vote with himself and thus lost? For example, if Bryan-Sewell got 33%, Bryan-Watson got 33%, and McKinley-Hobart 34%, would that have been a victory for the McKinley-Hobart team? (Or just for Hobart?) We doubt that, of course, but anyway, the USA did not have to find that out, since McKinley just beat Bryan, but a lot of voters probably were wondering and confused. Some suspect, therefore, that the fusion ticket may actually have cost Bryan votes.

Another historical example: New York State Governor Race 2010

Fusion is legal in NY State (one of the few states that has it), but had no useful effect that I ever noticed during 1981-2010. In the 2010 Governor race it led to a huge screwup and embarrassment for everybody.

The Democratic Party's candidate was Andrew Cuomo. The person almost everybody thought would be the Republican candidate was Rick Lazio. However, "tea party" multimillionaire Carl Palladino unexpectedly won the Republican nomination, helped by the fact that Lazio refused to debate him and Palladino had the money for TV ads to make Lazio look like an ass over that. However, the NY State "fusion party" thing usually means the minor parties, some of which exist only in NY State (Liberal party, Conservative party, Working Families party,...) just also nominate the Democrat or Republican and almost never actually run anybody for real. They apparently exist solely to collect money from various "pay to play" scams. So anyway, Palladino rightly refused to play their stupid payment games and hence the Conservative party nominated Lazio, even though Palladino seemed more conservative. But then – horrors – Lazio failed to win the Republican nomination. So now it was a 3-way race on paper, Palladino(R) v Lazio(C) v Cuomo(D). However, the last thing the NY Conservative party wanted to do was actually run a real race!!! (My god! That might actually take effort and consume money!) No, they just wanted to sit back and collect their money and votes, and if they got below 2% of the vote they would lose ballot access – which after Palladino's Republican victory seemed much more likely. (In a 3-way race Lazio was presumably either going to split the vote with Palladino as both "republican conservative" or split the vote with Cuomo as both "Albany insiders" – either way his chances were poor and he was likely to be a "spoiler" on whom nobody would want to "waste their vote.") And the Republicans did not want a possible vote-split. However, NY State law says, once you get nominated you cannot leave the ballot. You're on it. Unless you die, move out of state, or get nominated for a supreme court judgeship. The first two alternatives were unappealing for Lazio, so...

Presto... suddenly the Republicans nominated Lazio for a supreme court judgeship, even though he had no interest in that seat, did not plan to campaign for it, and (not coincidentally) was expected to certainly lose. But that allowed the Rs and the Cs to get Lazio off that ballot spot, and the Cs then put Palladino on it by magic. Mission accomplished: NY voters now had less choice in both the governor and supreme court races!

Fusion voting: in this case, a total failure and embarrassment.

Conclusion

Fusion voting is mainly not a real change in the voting system, but rather a fake change. It will not break the grip of 2-party domination and Duverger's law. Voters still will, under plurality voting, be strategically motivated to vote for one of the top two candidates to avoid wasting their vote, rendering genuine third party candidates irrelevant. Fusion is a minor issue, an issue of style and surface gloss rather than genuine content, and it's a waste of reformer energy compared to the 1000-times-more-important issue of making a genuine change in the voting system by adopting score voting. In fact, the cynical/paranoid might even view the whole fusion idea as a conspiracy intentionally created to derail genuine voting reform.

Is fusion voting – judged purely on its own merits – a good idea? On the plus side, it probably is somewhat helpful to third parties. It allows third parties to grow (unfortunately for them with a rather weak definition of both "party" and "grow") without dying in infancy due to the spoiler trainwreck. On the minus side, it tends to corrupt and demean them (NY State experience) and can confuse the voters. My guess is its advantages probably outweigh its disadvantages, but the effect is tiny enough that I am not certain of that. I've never seen even a single convincing example where fusion had any clear election-altering effect whatever.

Here is an interesting exchange that occurred on the RV bulletin board:
Raphfrk: I think fusion helps in much the same way as IRV (Instant Runoff Voting), except that the 3rd party has admitted defeat and will never get elected.
Abd: Not in that election. But it may continue to gain expressed support, until it is sufficiently strong that it might win. At this point, the party, unless there is Approval or Score Voting, has a problem. [This is indeed similar to IRV because] IRV still has a spoiler effect, when three parties exist at roughly equal strength.
Juho: Combining two-round runoff with fusion could be interesting (especially at the second round).


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