Little Rock A scandal has broken out in New York State recently. A Democratic state legislator was caught trying to buy his way onto a minor party ballot line to run for Mayor in New York City. The fact the minor party in the big city is Republican is just a sidebar snicker to the rest of this mess. But, how did the assembly in New York react? Did they tighten down on ethics and corruption? No, they are using this as an excuse to go after the independent, ballot line parties in the state by trying to eliminate fusion which allows a candidate to run for office on more than one ballot line.
Once upon a time fusion was common in the United States. In the 19th century there was a robust political field with numerous parties. Some of these parties became what we now know as the Republicans and the Democrats. Others included the Greenback party, the Workingman’s Party, the Whigs, the Union Party, the Progressives, the Socialists, and so forth. In the latter years of the 1800’s the Populist Party grew out of a popular movement of farmers and some unions and won political control in some state governments and with standard bearers like the great orator William Jennings Bryan were contenders for national office. My great grandfather was elected as a Populist state legislator from Kosciuszko, Mississippi in fact. With an array of parties giving voice to various groups of people and issues, when it got down to the wire, lacking a parliamentary system that would have allowed for proportional representation, parties would “fuse,” meaning that, when skilled and able, they would enter alliances to back the same candidate on each of their ballot lines, thereby increasing their chances of winning without losing their base of devoted members and partisans.
1896 was a watershed election and too close of a call for the larger parties, so over the successive couple of decades, state by state, the two larger parties entered into legislative alliances to reduce the competition and get rid of this fusion thing which was helping the minor parties grow by giving people an alternative platform for their electoral expression. About seven states resisted the tide and maintained legal fusion throughout the 20th century. The New Party tried to revive the issue organizationally and legally in the 1980’s, but failed at the Supreme Court, nonetheless leaving in its legacy various state efforts in places like New York and Connecticut with the Working Families Party and in some other states like South Carolina and Oregon where efforts are ongoing.
The Working Families Party of New York has been particularly effective and built real influence in various communities and statewide in the 21st Century prompting ongoing harassment by other political parties, frivolous and expensive investigations and the other hallmarks in these divisive times of hardball political life. Make no mistake the effort in New York and a similar one in Connecticut last year are efforts to finally snap these political parties in the bud. Efforts to say a candidate could only be named on one ballot or bizarrely could petition their way onto the party’s ballot independent of the party’s own membership and process would be fatal to these efforts. As Dan Cantor, the head of the Working Families Party was quoted saying about these proposals:
“Parties are supposed to select their own standard-bearers from people who share their values under this system, primary voters would have no idea if people listed on the ballot had any allegiance to party’s values.” Such an unapproved candidacy could “threaten the integrity of any party,” he said. And if a party has a bad year, there are consequences: they need to draw 50,000 votes in an election for governor to have an automatic line on the ballot for the next four years.
Make no mistake these new efforts to ban fusion are just like the old efforts and nothing more than smokescreens to take away the peoples’ political voice and ability to act and be heard politically. These are efforts to suppress the growing power of alternative political forms of expression like the Working Families Power before they get even more out of hand and actually have the power to provide alternatives to the big bullies in the Republican and Democratic parties. We need more fusion, not less!