What is fusion voting and why do some want to revive it in New Jersey?
Supporters say fusion gives independent voters more of a voice. Critics say it confuses voters
Election reformers say fusion voting, which allows candidates to appear under more than one political party on general election ballots, could help improve voter turnout. (Photo by David Dee Delgado/Getty Images)
A bid to boost Rep. Tom Malinowski’s reelection bid has shined a spotlight on an electoral practice that has been banned in New Jersey since the 1920s.
With a name that sounds better suited to a soda brand or nightclub, fusion voting allows the same candidate for a public office to appear on a general election ballot under multiple political parties.
The idea is that third parties then can endorse a major-party candidate when they’re not putting forth a candidate of their own, giving independent voters more power.
A Democratic candidate, for example, could also be listed on the Green Party line, or a Republican candidate on the Conservative Party line. Voters registered to third parties can then support a major-party candidate without straying from their party line, or worse, forgoing voting altogether or casting a “protest vote” for a third-party candidate with no shot of winning.
In Malinowski’s case, the new Moderate Party has asked a state appellate court to allow them to put his name in their column, meaning Malinowski — already the Democratic nominee in the 7th Congressional District — would be on the ballot under two political parties’ columns. Malinowski’s foes complain the move is a sneaky effort to help him win reelection during a challenging year for Democrats.
Joe Dinkin, national campaigns director for the Working Families Party, called fusion “a good thing for democracy.” Dinkin’s party takes advantage of fusion voting in New York and Connecticut.
“We live in too big a country to think that everybody’s views are going to fall within the two big parties. Most people say there should be more voices. The fusion system allows a more constructive role for people who want to be part of minor parties. Without fusion, minor party voters are often at best irrelevant or at worst counterproductive,” Dinkin said.
He added: “Fusion, it seems to me, should be protected by the freedom of association. If people with a certain worldview get together and form a party, who’s to restrict them from saying who their candidate is on the ballot?”
Fusion — also called cross-endorsement or open-ballot voting — was common in the 1800s, but largely disappeared with the rise of the two-party system in the 1900s. Only a handful of states still use it.
Some election reformers have focused on fusion as one possible remedy to the increasing polarization in politics that has alienated many voters. Supporters say fusion could entice more younger voters, whose ideologies skew more independent, to the polls.
It’s also a way for smaller parties to communicate their beliefs to the broader electorate — and even gain strength, said Julia Sass Rubin, a professor at the Edward J. Bloustein School of Planning and Public Policy at Rutgers University.
New Jersey is a two-party state largely because it requires a party to receive at least 10% of all votes cast in the state’s last general election in order to be recognized as a political party and hold a primary contest, Rubin said. To maintain its status as a political party, it must continue to receive 10% of the vote in biannual Assembly elections.
Such rules make it virtually impossible for new parties to form and bypass the machine-controlled county candidate selection process, Rubin said.
Fusion could help diversify politics as it has in New York, Rubin said.
“By allowing Democratic and Republican candidates to also be on third-party lines in the general election ballot, fusion voting would not only provide additional information to voters about candidates via the ballot, it also would provide a mechanism for third parties to meet the 10% of the total vote threshold to be recognized as a political party and be entitled to hold a primary contest, since voters could vote for a third party candidate without ‘throwing their vote away’ as they would currently be doing,” Rubin said.
Sue Altman, state director of the New Jersey Working Families Alliance, backs fusion voting. Altman said independent-minded voters can find more power backing a major-party candidate using a separate line on the ballot because they can demonstrate how many votes they deliver — and that can force the candidate to listen to them once elected.
“If you can show them a receipt at the end of an election — we delivered this many votes to you — then it’s a really clear and indisputable articulation of power,” Altman said.
New Jersey lawmakers barred fusion voting in the early 1920s in a move to weaken the strength of third parties. Opposition to reviving the practice today is bipartisan. Former state Sen. Tom Kean Jr. — the GOP nominee to challenge Malinowski in the fall — trashed his opponent for backing fusion voting, calling it “a dishonest attempt to fool voters.”
Steve Ayscue, a South Jersey Democratic political strategist, is also opposed, telling Altman on Twitter last week that fusion would “complicate voting and deceive voters.”
For Dinkin, fusion could help boost voter turnout in the Garden State. Turnout for New Jersey’s gubernatorial election last fall hit a century low, at 40%.
“Some people don’t vote if they don’t feel like there’s a voice that represents them. If you allow a proliferation of parties, new parties will appeal to new bases of voters that they can turn out,” Dinkin said. “The fusion system can be a plus for people voting all the way down the ballot. Maybe you have never heard of the candidate running for town assessor, but if you see they’re endorsed by your party, that means something.”
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