As New York lumbers out of its double primary season and rolls into a general election that’s being closely watched for its potential to give Democrats control of the state Senate and therefore the entire Legislature, another issue more central to the democratic process itself is being debated in pockets across the state.
Fusion voting, the practice of allowing one candidate to take multiple political party ballot lines in a single election and aggregate the votes received on each, is under the gun as both Democratic establishment figures and progressive activists are reaching the conclusion that the practice does more harm than good to New York’s democracy. Yet, this isn’t the first time in the Andrew Cuomo era fusion has faced a threat, much less the first time some in the state have looked to dismantle the practice, which continues to have its defenders.
New York put a dent in fusion voting in the mid-20th century with the Wilson-Pakula Law, passed largely in reaction to the victories of the suspected Communist-linked American Labor Party’s Representative Vito Marcantonio, who ran with multiple nominations including the Democratic and Republican lines on his way to victories in his East Harlem district. The law made it illegal for a candidate to run on the line of a party for which they weren’t registered, unless party leadership gave the candidate express permission through what is now commonly referred to as “a Wilson-Pakula.”
Smaller parties still exerted influence sometimes in New York though, as seen in John Lindsay’s successful re-election bid in 1969 on the Liberal Party line, undertaken after he lost the Republican primary. Decades later, Rudy Giuliani won his 1993 election thanks in part to the Liberal Party endorsement over incumbent Democratic Mayor David Dinkins. The party’s decision was largely seen as a power move by its leader, Ray Harding, and while it got Harding’s sons jobs in the new administration, the Giuliani endorsement also put into motion the eventual demise of the party, which lost its ballot line after endorsing Andrew Cuomo for governor in 2002 and failing to get 50,000 votes, and the rise of the Working Families Party, one of the most influential fusion parties in the state, along with the Conservative and Independence parties.
In the aftermath of the Liberal Party decision to endorse Giuliani, Dan Cantor, Bob Masters and Jon Kest convinced activism organization ACORN and several New York labor unions to join forces under the new Working Families Party umbrella and endorse Peter Vallone for governor in 1998. The endorsement, the beginning of the WFP’s blend of pragmatism and progressivism as American Prospect noted, worked as Vallone got just over the 50,000 votes on the WFP line the party needed to secure a statewide ballot line for at least the next four years. The party’s existence as a left flank with the Democrats allowed voters who wanted to express those left tendencies to have a voice in the Democratic firmament, and the WFP has managed to elect a City Council member, Letitia James, on their line and put their cross-endorsed stamp of approval on Mayor Bill de Blasio, Comptroller Scott Stringer, James -- now the Public Advocate and likely next Attorney General -- and members of the City Council Progressive Caucus. Candidates have regularly secured thousands more votes on the WFP line than there are registered members of the WFP eligible, meaning many Democrats choose to vote WFP to indicate their support for the party and its efforts to move Democrats left. By having a ballot line to offer, the WFP is able to influence Democratic candidates on its issues.
But the WFP’s victories on a citywide level haven’t been replicated on the statewide level, at least in terms of influencing progressive bête noire Andrew Cuomo. From the start of his successful gubernatorial runs, Cuomo has had a fraught relationship with the party, though he’s now on its ballot line for the third straight election.
Unlike the previous two elections in which he got the WFP line, Cuomo and the WFP’s mutual frustration with each other boiled over into the party nominating Cynthia Nixon in an effort to either shock the world and have their chosen leftist as the Democratic nominee or at least push Cuomo leftward, and Cuomo allegedly threatening progressive organizations that had been critical of him. The feud between the two sides cooled down enough after the very heated primary to allow the WFP to offer Cuomo its line in November, though -- in an indication of the messiness of fusion voting -- having to move Nixon off the line and into an Assembly election spot has led to other headaches.
The party had a well-publicized argument with Joe Crowley over his refusal to leave its ballot line after it endorsed him over Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, since under New York State law candidates can only be removed from a ballot line if they transfer to another race, move out of their district, or die, a trio of options Crowley found unappealing. And while the WFP notched a series of victories in efforts to depose six the of eight members of the state Senate Independent Democratic Conference, some of those members are lingering or outright running in the general election on ballot on lines like those of the Independence Party and Women’s Equality Party.
While only Tony Avella has announced his intention to mount a vigorous general election campaign, Democratic Party bosses were rumored to have dangled judgeships to Senators Jeff Klein and Jesse Hamilton in order to persuade them to step away from the ballots, blatantly undemocratic horse-trading that also would have rewarded a state Senator, Klein, who was accused earlier this year of forcibly kissing a staffer. Those moves have not been made, and neither Klein or Hamilton has officially declared their general election intentions.
Perhaps sensing an opportunity to assert their power, the Democratic establishment across New York is making noise about ending fusion.
“Call it CON-fusion voting” Democratic consultant Bob Liff wrote in the Daily Newsin the wake of the Crowley situation, calling the practice transactional as opposed to reformist as it exists in New York. The practice only exists as an avenue for patronage, wrote Joshua Spivak of the Hugh Carey Institute for Government Reform, and third parties could actually grow without fusion.
Norman Green, chair of the Chautauqua County Democratic Party, wrote that the practice encourages corruption on a local level and a tail wags the dog situation on a statewide level, and the Erie County Democratic Town Chairs Association called for an end to Wilson-Pakula because of what they said resulted in overstuffed ballots featuring the same candidates on a series of different ballot lines.
State Senator Diane Savino, one of the original founders of the Working Families Party and Independent Democratic Conference, who in an ironic twist saw the WFP’s organizing prowess help unseat six of her IDC allies, told the Daily News that a Democratic Senate majority should explore including ending fusion voting as part of electoral reform efforts because the practice pulls candidates too far left or right.
A spokesperson for Governor Cuomo, who cites election reform as a top 2019 priority, did not respond to a question on whether ending fusion voting would be on his agenda if he wins reelection this year.
So is fusion on the way out?
“It's nothing new,” Mike Long, the chair of the New York State Conservative Party, told Gotham Gazette. “The Conservative Party has been in business since 1962, I've heard those cries over the 50-some-odd years. I hear those cries every governor's race for sure, especially when independent parties nominate someone other than those who think they should be crowned.”
As it typically does, the Conservative Party has cross-endorsed the Republican nominee for governor, Marc Molinaro. Like the WFP on the left, the Conservative Party is seen on the right as an important seal of approval and a force that pulls away from the middle.
Recent history is on Long’s side. Governor Cuomo floated the idea of nixing Wilson-Pakula in 2013 in the wake of a bribery scandal involving Malcolm Smith attempting to buy his way onto the Republican ballot line for the New York City mayoral election.
The effort ran into resistance from the smaller parties and reform groups like Common Cause New York and the Brennan Center for Justice and never went anywhere. And Bill Lipton, the Working Families Party’s political director in New York, says current anti-fusion sentiment is misplaced, especially given there are other reforms the state can make.
“We think fusion is a good idea that allows a minority viewpoint to have a say, and that gives voters who don’t find their views fully represented by either major party a political home,” he told Gotham Gazette. “The real issue is the bizarre set of laws that govern how candidates can get off the ballot, and those do need to be fixed,” Lipton said, referring to the die, move, or change races stipulations that allow someone to come off a ballot.
But this year’s frustration with the practice among progressives and good government advocates doesn’t stop at ballot law shenanigans, and extends to critiques about third parties run like local fiefdoms and prominent but ideology-free parties using fusion to gain prominence.
“This isn't about pushing third parties and their values,” said Rachel Barnhart, a journalist turned politician who’s run for several offices in Rochester and is currently working on Stephanie Miner’s independent bid for governor, about fusion voting. “It's about keeping a place at the table, it's about power-brokering. The Working Families Party has given perfunctory interviews and then just given the nod to the person they already know. These parties that exist to just extract money from powerful parties, and it handicaps people trying to defeat the establishment.”
Barnhart had especially harsh words for the WFP-endorsed Joe Morelle, the Rochester Assembly member and current Democratic nominee to replace the late Louise Slaughter in Congress, and his relationship with the Conservative Party of Monroe County, suggesting there was some kind of agreement between the candidate and party to make sure he often ran unopposed in his Assembly races, a frequent circumstance in those races. Democrats have a big registration advantage in Morelle’s district, and he has run unopposed for years, while state campaign finance records show donations given to the Conservative Party of Monroe County by both Morelle and various local Democratic Party organizations.
“It might have been a personal donation or whatever, I know he was friendly with the party leader up there, but I can’t speak to why he gave money to the Conservative Party,” Long said when asked about the donations. Told that Morelle ran unopposed, Long said, “I guess two and two makes four, maybe that’s why he donated some money.”
Using local parties as a kind of personal fiefdom is enough of a concern for even some allies of groups that rely on fusion.
“The baseline position among [good government groups] is fusion voting is a bad thing,” said Gus Christensen of the organization No IDC, which helped lead campaign efforts against the former IDC members. “Forgetting whether it benefits Democrats or Republicans in whatever election, it empowers some deeply corrupt and non-representative individuals who run these parties and small groups.”
Even fusion advocates see the occasional weakness in the system. “You can look at the Conservative Party and get a platform from us and know where we stand on all the issues,” Long said, when asked about the issue of minor parties and ideology. “You can look at the Working Families Party, our philosophical opposite, and see where they stand. No one knows where the Reform Party stands or what issues are important to them. It's pretty hard when a party endorses far left and in the next breath they support very conservative candidates. Certainly the Independence Party doesn't have a whole host of issues or an agenda they're trying to promote.”
New York’s Independence Party has come under criticism for years due to what critics say is a membership driven more by confusion from voters who think they’re registering merely as “independent” -- the party boasts over 436,612 active registered voters, outpacing all the other parties in New York except Democrats and Republicans. It has also been run by fringe political figures who’ve gotten the ear of mainstream candidates banking on the almost half a million people registered with the party, prominence that inspired a weeklong Daily News investigation into the party.
And while Christensen dismissed the chances of any of the former IDC members mounting a successful challenge on a third party line, he said when it comes to statewide offices, the WFP’s clout was neutralized by the existence of these other third parties.
“The pull of the Independence and Reform parties for the more right-wing members of our party, they pull people like Andrew Cuomo to the right in a way that's much more significant to the lives of New Yorkers because he can't stop hearing the siren song of the Independence and Reform endorsements. So I think there's an emerging view that it's a net-negative for progressive politics in New York State. That as much as there's a benefit from the WFP getting to use fusion voting, it’s more than offset by the damage done by the Independence Party and the Reform Party.”
It’s a weakness in the coalition-building attempts that has some people demanding more wholesale change. The WFP’s endorsement of Cuomo crossed from pragmatism to cynicism for some, including Green Party gubernatorial nominee Howie Hawkins, who issued a statement calling the WFP’s attempt the pull the Democratic Party left a “futile effort” and invited socialist and progressive voters to fill in the circle for him instead.
Barnhart is also challenging third parties to stand on their own. “New York State has kept this because keeping fusion voting means you're keeping both [major] parties strong. They don't want to have to deal with a strong independent candidate. You never know what could happen with a third party, and that's why New York State makes it so difficult to establish a ballot line and that's why they do fusion voting. Because these third parties just wind up being cogs of a party machine.”
It’s not as simple as that, though, according to Lipton, who said the realities of America’s electoral system are what make fusion necessary. “Our first-past-the-post electoral system doesn’t exist in most countries,” he said. “It’s arguably undemocratic, because even a party that gets 49 percent of the vote sees no representation. Fusion is good for democracy because it gives minority viewpoints a fair shot to participate in the electoral process.”
And that current reality of an electoral system that lays out the choice between being an unheard minority or a spoiler means that fusion as practiced by the Working Families and Conservative parties can also come in for praise by good government activists.
"I think that the Working Families Party and the Conservative Party are the best example of how fusion can work and is beneficial,” Alex Carmada, the senior policy adviser for Reinvent Albany, told Gotham Gazette. “They're true in their beliefs, they've existed for a long time, and they don't play the role of spoilers."
The relatively new Reform Party in New York has indeed endorsed a strange mix of candidates, including Molinaro and Democratic Comptroller Tom DiNapoli, but it does have several clearly outlined principles, mostly focused on government reform, like term limits for elected officials. The party, which is not formally affiliated with the national Reform Party by the larger group’s choice, was only created in 2014 by then-Republican gubernatorial candidate Rob Astorino, who launched the Stop Common Core Party, earned 50,000 votes on the line, then changed its name to Reform after the election. It has just 1802 active voters registered as Reform across the entire state, but it has a ballot line.
Something somewhat similar took place with Cuomo’s Women’s Equality Party, which he created in 2014 as an election gimmick and to hurt the WFP, even as he appeared on both ballot lines, along with the Democratic and Independence party lines. Cuomo earned just over 50,000 on the WEP line and will again appear on it this year, though he does not appear to have mentioned it yet this year on the campaign trail (he has loaned it some money, however, from his campaign account).
Carmada said it’s all life under fusion.
"The Stop Common Core Party is the equivalent of the WEP, an of-the-moment election issue that becomes a party and then its usefulness diminishes by the next election. Especially for Stop Common Core, the original message was not sustainable, but the system we have in New York encourages the creation of these of-the-moment parties," Carmada said.
If the end of fusion is near though, Long at least was copacetic about the future of the Conservative Party.
“Just because the insiders do away with fusion voting, doesn't mean the minor parties go out of business,” he said. “We’ll run our own candidates for governor, United States Senate. We did that in the beginning and we can do it again. The Conservative Party has done that off and on quite often.”