One Candidate, Many Parties
Massachusettes voters should choose “Yes” on fusion voting
Published October 23rd 2006 in The Harvard Crimson

In today’s trivializing, distracted political environment where ad hominem attacks are the rule rather than the exception, substance is often subordinated to sensationalism, and voters are often left with a paucity of viable candidates—namely two. Before the battle has been joined, Democrats and Republicans talk of bringing dignity to politics and running issues-oriented campaigns, but when the dust settles, everyone’s hands are muddy.

This is no less true in Massachusetts than other states. But if Bay State voters are tired of voting for a Democrat or Republican, or if they feel that the candidates in a particular year do not particularly match their own views, then they are left with a dismal decision: a Democrat or Republican that they moderately support, or a third-party candidate whom they enthusiastically support but who does not stand a chance of being elected. And if they do opt to vote symbolically for the third party, there is a chance that doing so will help elect their least desirable candidate by siphoning a vote away from a mainstream candidate.

But there’s a solution which, while not a panacea, will go a long way towards solving both of these problems. It’s called “fusion voting.”

Sitting on the Massachusetts ballot this year as the referendum “Question Two,” fusion voting allows candidates to be endorsed by more than one party. In effect, this empowers regional and local third parties to endorse mainstream candidates while retaining their own, distinctive platform. Issues-oriented third parties can then amass a strong constituency, confident that their votes will be relevant, and force politicians to speak to their concerns.

Nevertheless, third parties will still be free to nominate their own candidates for office, if they feel that the mainstream candidates do not sufficiently represent their platforms. In fact, lesser-known candidates will greatly benefit from the increased visibility and importance third parties gain from fusion voting.

uch a system will even be advantageous for the Democrats and Republicans. At least initially, fusion voting will strengthen the two-party system, allowing the establishment parties to garner votes that might otherwise go to candidates with no hope of winning. In return, mainstream campaigns will be forced to speak to difficult local and regional issues instead of safely spouting the hackneyed political fare that they are used to.

In some arenas, such as New York’s historically torpid political milieu, fusion voting has provided a much needed shot in the arm. Once-marginalized parties such as the Working Families Party, the Conservative Party, and the Independence Party have become forces in local and statewide elections. In a few important races where they cross-endorsed a mainstream candidate, votes under their aegis even proved decisive. Sen. Hillary Clinton (D-N.Y.), for example, was nominated by both the Democratic and Working Families parties in 2000, and a significant chunk of her votes came under the latter banner.

But as much of an improvement as fusion voting will be, there is a better alternative: instant-runoff voting (which is also known as ranked choice voting, Hare-Clark proportional voting, and several other names). A more radical electoral change than fusion voting, instant-runoff voting (IRV) will enable voters to rank candidates instead of voting for just one. After an instant-runoff election, the candidate with the fewest first-choice votes is eliminated from contention, and the voters who voted for this candidate have their second-choice votes redistributed to the remaining candidates. The process of elimination and redistribution continues until there are two candidates left, one of whom will have attained a majority.

Unlike fusion voting, which will provide much more of a boost to third parties than third-party candidates, IRV will allow voters who would rather support lesser-known candidates to not have to settle for a candidate too moderate or extreme for their tastes. Instead, they could cast their first vote for the minority candidate but still have their second, mainstream choice count.

While fusion voting and IRV both empower small, local parties and force campaigns to become issues-oriented, IRV has the added benefit of ensuring a majority vote in the end, giving the winner more credibility than he or she otherwise would have. Furthermore, IRV has proven its feasibility in practice from Cambridge City Council elections to Republican Congressional nominations in Utah to our very own Undergraduate Council legislative and presidential elections.

There’s an old campaign trail story about a marginalized voter who cares very deeply about a campaign issue that he feels the mainstream candidates are not addressing. So, the story goes, he goes to every campaign rally, every fundraiser, every press conference that the mainstream candidate holds. He raises signs, hands out flyers, and generally becomes such a nuisance that the big-time candidate eventually has to address his issue. The story is told as something of a horror story among campaign managers, because such a situation is a rarity, at best.

But if that one, highly motivated citizen became many citizens, they would not have to go to every campaign event that a mainstream candidate held. They would just have to vote their conscience on Election Day. Such is the power of fusion voting and IRV.

Massachusetts voters should vote “Yes” on Question Two, but push, in the future, for a broader reform that could revolutionize the political process: instant-runoff voting.