Breaking the Deadlock: Fusion Politics

By Jeff Malachowsky of Portland, Oregon who describes himself as "a long-time public interest organizer and activist" and serves on the boards of numerous progressive organizations.

Did you work hard to elect John Kerry, but worried that if he won, it might not make that big a difference in economic policy, education policy, health care or even foreign policy? Did you vote for Ralph Nader in 2000, but worry that you were throwing your vote away or worse yet, helping to elect George Bush? Are you frustrated by the number of working people who vote Republican, against their own economic self interest? Do you think the Democrats have lost their focus? Do you want to make your voice heard in elections as more than a symbolic protest? Well, now that the election is over, and we're facing four more years of George Bush, it's time to talk about fusion.

Back when our democracy was younger and more vibrant, fusion was a common voting system throughout the US, including in Oregon. There were multiple parties competing for votes based on strong and clear programs.

But precisely because it gave a choice, and a voice, to militant workers and farmers, the Republicans outlawed it in all but a few states at the turn of the last century. Fusion is now legal only in a few states, and only used actively in New York and Connecticut.

Fusion gives voters a new choice, a way to make their vote meaningful without being forced to vote for a hopeless candidate, or wind up helping elect a distasteful one. Fusion voting permits more than one party to nominate the same candidate, or cross-endorse, so that voters can vote for the party that stands most strongly for their issues while knowing their votes will go to someone with a chance to win. The votes from the different parties are tallied separately, reported publicly, and then combined for that candidate's total.

Using fusion, minor parties can demonstrate in clear and unequivocal terms how much support they can deliver to a candidate by highlighting the number of votes a candidate receives on each party's line. This gives greater influence with candidates and elected officials, especially when a third party provides the margin of victory. Imagine that fusion had been legal in 2000. People could have voted for Al Gore on the Green Party line, making it clear that his margin of victory came from people who cared about Green Party issues. Or, if Oregon had had an 'education party' in 2002, Ted Kulongoski might know exactly how important saving public education is to Oregon's future, and his own.

That's what happened in the 19th century, when fusion was legal in Oregon and there were viable populist parties. In Oregon we even elected an 'anti-monopolist' reform Governor, Sylvester Pennoyer, who campaigned against 'the intolerable tyranny of trusts and corporations,' using fusion. The populists at the time regularly 'fused' with the Democratic Party. As a result, the Republicans lost their grip on the Northwest and many populist reforms were put in place. In the 1890's, the Republicans focused their energy on making fusion voting illegal, and they succeeded in Oregon and in most other states.

New York State gives us the best example of what fusion voting can accomplish. There in 1998, the Working Families Party, a coalition of labor unions (including SEIU, AFSCME, Communications Workers, Teamsters, UAW, UNITE-HERE, Laborers) and community organizations formed the Working Families Party. It now has over 60 affiliate unions and community organizations and over one million members in chapters throughout New York State. The Working Families Party regularly fuses with Democrats, and with the occasional Republican, who support their issues, which include living wages, fair progressive taxes, support for public education, and universal health care. The Party will run their own candidates when neither of the two major parties' candidates support working families' issues, but their greatest impact comes from aggressively promoting their issues rather than personalities, and using fusion by cross-endorsing major party candidates who commit to support WFP issues.

As a result of WFP pressure, New York State has managed to avoid the right wing tax cut frenzy. In 2002 the WFP led the fight for solving the New York City budget crisis through progressive revenue increases, not deep social service cuts as Oregon and so many other states have done. The WFP has also been given substantial credit for the passage of strong campaign finance legislation in New York City, a $2/hour raise in the NY State minimum wage, and the recent repeal of the worst aspects of the Rockefeller drug laws, which set the bar two decades ago for mandatory sentencing. For more details about their structure, history and many accomplishments over the past five years, visit the Party's website at

Here in Oregon we have long suffered a gridlocked Legislature from which we get no real solutions to our current fiscal, education, health care and environmental crises. Could fusion voting make a difference? Can we imagine forming our own Working Families Party in Oregon to build a strong majority for basic economic issues, issues of education, living wages, clean jobs and energy, health care, affordable housing, and support for the fair tax structure needed to provide those things where corporations and wealthy individuals pay their fair share? Could such a party appeal to the many working people, including some 40% of union members, who now vote Republican on 'cultural issues?'

In New York the Working Families Party attracts voters from the right, left and center. They get culturally conservative, Catholic, union voters in the suburbs and upstate New York who think the Democratic Party stands for elitism. They attract voters with no party affiliation who are generally distrustful of both major parties. And they get votes from the left and from progressive Democrats who think the Democrats should and could be much better on many issues and who want to send a message without throwing their vote away or helping to elect a Republican.

Unlike instant runoff voting (IRV), fusion voting focuses on issues rather than on candidates. Recognizing that it is hard to recruit good candidates, and harder yet to raise the money necessary to make them visible enough to win an election, fusion allows a third party to focus instead on being a party, raising issues, building constituencies for those issues, and holding candidates accountable on those issues once they are elected.

On April 12 there will be a forum sponsored by the League of Women Voters, (7:00 p.m. at the Unitarian Church on NW 12th and Salmon) about the state of our political parties and current reform proposals. Among the speakers will be Dan Cantor, the Director of the Working Families Party in New York. Put it in your calendar and join the discussion of how to take back our democracy.

  • (Show?)


    Just a few amendments. You're too cavalier applying today's party labels to the parties of a century ago. The Republican party of the 1890s was the party in power, but to contrast them with a reforming Democratic party, most of whose strength resided in the Jim Crow South, is not wholly fair. Both parties had conservative and reformist wings.

    Second, you have to remind the readers that fusion voting will also allow the Constitutional, Taxpayers, and Right to Life parties (I think the first and third are in NY) to take advantage of fusion voting. The party advantage/disadvantages of fusion voting are not precisely clear.

  • Anon (unverified)

    Fusion would allow other parties whose politics we might not like onto the ballot. New York has a Conservative Party and an Independence Party (with very amorphous politics). The Right to Life Party existed for years, but recently loss its ballot line due to lack of support.

    But, what fusion allows for progressives is a way to vote for your values without "spoiling". When our support in Oregon is registered by how many votes a left fusion party here receives, we can then demand our share of the representation. Politicians who dont work with us risk losing our support (we can still, of course, choose not to fuse).

    The history of New York politics, and of fusion elsewhere, shows it can really work. It takes time, and a ton of work, but you can use it to inject progressive issues into the state.

  • David Wright (unverified)

    Interesting idea.

    Not more choices for voters, but fewer candidates who are more beholden to special interests?

    I don't have any particular problem with allowing fusion voting, heck why not allow any number of parties to put forth the same person for office? But I'm not sure it would necessarily have the "beneficial" effect that you expect.

    For example, you cited 2000 and Al Gore's potential victory due to the margin afforded by Green Party voters. But that assumes that everyone who voted Green in 2000 would have voted for Gore if he was the party candidate, and it assumes that everyone who voted for Gore in 2000 would still have voted for Gore if he was endorsed by the Greens.

    Of course it might have worked out as you described. But making a relatively mainstream candidate move away from the mainstream certainly has the potential to alienate as much support as it picks up, if not more.

  • Steve Bucknum (unverified)

    As I read the information provided regarding "fusion", I wonder if it isn't wrongly named. To me it looks like "fracture".

    At times we are all issue driven when something bugs us. But I don't think that is the way you build up a long term progressive direction. We need to work together, consistently, over the long haul, to take apart the ugly work of those Republicans. As it is we are already too split into issue oriented factions.

    It just doesn't make sense to me to add another layer to the whole political circus. We already work in coalition form.

    I guess this is just another one of those ideas to throw everything out the window and start over. But frankly, I am already very encouraged by the new grass roots efforts in the Democratic Party, I am happy with the election of Howard Dean to chair the party, I am happy that each month the numbers of people attending our County Democratic meetings is growing, I am happy to see all the work going into issue framing, I am happy to see on the ground responses to legislative issues, I am happy to see that the Democratic Party of Oregon is open to including Rural issues via a Rural Caucus into its organization, and so on. If I were any happier, I would just burst. But I suppose we could throw all that out the window, and start doing "fusion" politics and give more power to our "fractions".


guest column

connect with blueoregon