What is Fusion Voting?

Fusion voting allows a candidate for public office to be nominated by more than one party in a given race – with two or more parties “fusing” on a single candidate – and in doing so, allow new voices, new ideas, and new parties to emerge.

The votes for a candidate under a new party banner count the same as those on the major party line, but it’s a way for the new party to gain and demonstrate support amongst the public while backing a candidate with a real shot of winning. And it’s a way for voters to send a signal – without spoiling an election or wasting one’s vote – to the candidate and to the major parties to pay attention to that third party’s platform and priorities.

How would fusion voting help repair democracy?

Whatever one’s feelings may be about a particular political party, parties are critical to a functioning democracy: most people are too busy to research every candidate, so parties help individuals vote efficiently and engage in politics. (When a consumer lacks expertise around electronics, for example, a brand can help that consumer purchase a product that the consumer can likely rely upon. The same is true in politics. A voter may not have detailed information about every candidate, but a candidate’s party brand signals to the voter what a candidate is likely to stand for.) 

But the two major parties aren’t incentivized to reduce extreme polarization. Instead, primaries, gerrymandering, geographic self-sorting, and news and social media bubbles keep us locked in partisan warfare. 

The system won’t self-correct by exhorting politicians to be more reasonable or to listen to the other side. Change will only come if the rules are structurally altered to incentivize cooperation and compromise.  Fusion voting would help change those rules and incentives (See How would fusion parties influence major parties?, below), while also supporting the growth of political parties, which are the backbone of a healthy democracy.

Who does fusion voting help?

Reinstating fusion voting is a common sense solution to counter the extremism and polarization ingrained in our political system. Fusion voting benefits:

  • Voters: Fusion voting gives voters the ability to vote for a major party candidate with a real shot of winning on a party line that best matches their values. The voter neither “wastes” their vote on a new party candidate who has no chance of winning, nor “spoils” the election by unintentionally helping the major party candidate they least prefer. Fusion also allows voters to vote for a major party candidate they like, without having to signal support for a major party they don’t support.
  • New Parties: Fusion voting gives new parties more influence over the political agenda by incentivizing  major party candidates to appeal to the voters represented by that new party.

Candidates: Fusion voting produces more votes for major party candidates who appeal to multiple constituencies and are thus able to secure additional party endorsements.

Why was fusion voting outlawed in most states?

Fusion voting is still alive and well in Connecticut and New York, but it was outlawed in most states in the early 1900s because it worked as intended to create more parties that were able to exert influence on the major parties. In the 19th and early 20th centuries, smaller and emerging party voters consistently leveraged fusion voting to advance their agendas. The two major parties banned fusion in order to stamp out competition and consolidate their power. Most legal scholars believe this was, and is, an unconstitutional limit on the freedoms of association and assembly that all citizens should enjoy. The fusion ban has made it nearly impossible for new voices and parties to exercise real power and influence over the political agenda. This in turn has helped cement the dysfunctional, zero-sum nature of the two-party system and the dysfunctional government that it produces.

What would happen if fusion voting were reinstated?

In this moment, the most likely outcome would be the birth of centrist parties that support democracy, compromise and the rule of law, appealing to center-right and center-left constituencies. This party would give voters tired of partisan warfare a place to go, and would influence the two major parties to move away from the extremes and towards moderation. In the longer term, a limited number of other parties representing various viewpoints across the political spectrum would also emerge, enriching the political discourse beyond just red and blue. For example, in New York State (traditionally led by moderates from both parties), fusion voting has produced durable and constructive minor parties, like the Conservative Party on the right and Working Families Party on the left.

What does fusion voting look like in practice?

Fusion voting is a practice in which a candidate can appear on the ballot as the nominee of more than one party. On a single ballot, one person can be the candidate for both a major and a minor party. In close races, the votes cast for a candidate under a minor party can tip the scales, as this demonstrates a wide range of appeal. Here is a fictional sample ballot:

How would fusion parties influence major parties?

If votes go to a fusion party, candidates and parties would take note. They’d adjust to capture those votes. With both major parties winning power by small margins, the fusion party could potentially have significant influence.

Imagine a “center” party that does not run its own slate of candidates, but like all fusion parties reviews the records of the two major party candidates and nominates the one with the clearest commitment to cross-partisan cooperation, problem solving, and the rule of law. It wouldn’t take long for the nomination of this center party to be an important, even decisive, factor in many elections. This, in turn, could encourage more compromise and productivity in policy making as the major parties compete for those voters.

We’ve seen this influence happen throughout history too, for example, the Workingmen’s Party of the 1820s and the abolitionist Liberty, Barnburners, and Free Soil parties of the 1840s and 1850s all utilized fusion voting to advance their causes and force the major parties to support their agendas. This created a vigorous, multi-party system with more representation of diverse political views and governing reforms that were responsive to the major challenges of the day.

What are “wasted vote” or “spoiler” dilemmas?

A “wasted” vote is one that is cast for a candidate with no chance of winning. 

A “spoiler” vote occurs when one votes for a third party candidate with no shot of winning and in doing so siphons away a vote from the major party candidate one likes best. This in turn helps to elect the major party candidate one likes the least.

Third parties face an insuperable obstacle in our system. In non-fusion states (48 of the 50), third party sympathizers are almost always wasting their votes on candidates with no credible chance of winning. In some rare cases, the wasted votes can actually add up to a total that spoils an election. In the last thirty years, two presidential elections were arguably “spoiled.” Ross Perot’s voters inadvertently helped Bill Clinton win, and Ralph Nader’s voters no doubt helped secure George W. Bush’s victory over Al Gore.

Won’t we end up with too many fringe parties?

No. In states like Connecticut and New York where fusion is the norm, there hasn’t been a proliferation of parties. It’s important to remember that, with fusion, candidates themselves need to accept a party’s nomination – that means they likely won’t want to be associated with a fringe party. Fringe parties don’t typically get many votes, so there is less of an incentive for a politician to want that association.