New York State

Would ending fusion voting hurt GOP and help suburban Dems?

Many prominent Democrats have rushed to the defense of fusion voting, but the practice actually empowers minor parties on the right, such as the Conservative Party and the WFP can pull the Democrats leftward through other means, writes Ross Barkan.

Mike Groll/Office of the Governor

With Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s campaign finance commission now mulling the end of fusion voting – the ability of a candidate to run on multiple ballot lines at once – it’s worth considering whether fusion is something the left should rally to protect. Cuomo’s interest in ending fusion appears to be a broadside aimed directly at kneecapping the Working Families Party, the left-leaning minor party which he has warred with over the last decade. The WFP typically puts Democrats on its ballot line, the practice of fusion that the state may soon eliminate, and has fought with Cuomo in the past over what progressive policies or political processes he would embrace to win their endorsement.

When the idea of ending fusion voting was floated earlier this year, many prominent New York Democrats rushed to the defense of fusion, including U.S. Sens. Charles Schumer and Kirsten Gillibrand and the most famous first-term representative in America, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. 

But are they right to think fusion voting advances the agenda of liberals and Democrats, or does it actually hinder it by empowering minor parties on the right, such as the Conservative Party? Is it necessary to have a left-wing third party when the WFP and allied groups can win Democratic primaries? “Does the Working Families Party need a ballot line to be powerful and elect progressive folks?” asked Chris Coffey, a New York City-based Democratic strategist and lobbyist. “That’s the bigger question.”

Only eight states, including New York, allow fusion voting. It’s unclear, though, how likely the possibility of ending fusion here really is.

On the Democratic side, critics of the practice are muted. The one exception is in Nassau County. Jay Jacobs, the chairman of both the Nassau Democrats and the state Democratic Party, has spoken publicly about his desire to end fusion voting. He is now a member of the commission, and declined to speak with City & State. But the vice chairman of the Nassau Democrats, Tom Garry, said he would welcome the death of fusion to kill two third parties that have bolstered Republicans in the suburbs: the Conservative and Independence parties.

“Fusion has not helped. It’s dramatically harmed us,” Garry said. “Far too many times, we’ve been on the losing end of a recount where the Independence and Conservative parties absolutely were the basis for the loss.”

There are several ways to examine the impact of fusion voting on New York politics. First, there are the raw numbers; this is where suburban Democrats have a point. Voters are far more likely to flock to the Conservative Party, a third party founded in 1962 to push Republicans rightward.

The Independence Party, a sham party made up mostly of people who accidentally registered into it thinking they were becoming independent voters, gathered fewer votes on its line, but it can make a difference in very close races. The Independence Party usually rents its line to Republicans or non-Democrats. Michael Bloomberg won three mayoral elections with help from the ballot line.

In suburban general elections, these conservative third parties provide a boost. In 2018, Republican state Sen. Phil Boyle defeated Democrat Lou D’Amaro by 3,636 votes on Long Island. Boyle netted 5,172 votes on the Conservative Party line alone, while D’Amaro won only 1,194 votes on the WFP line. Even in races where Senate Democrats won, the Conservative Party always lent more votes, usually at a rate of roughly 5:1 over the WFP.

Upstate, the story is similar. In the Hudson Valley, 16,906 Conservatives voted for John Faso, the Republican congressman defeated by Democrat Antonio Delgado. Only 9,237 backed Delgado on the WFP line. In an overlapping district, Republican state Sen. Sue Serino barely beat back a Democratic challenger, Karen Smythe, with the help of third parties.

If only the Democrats and Republicans counted, Smythe actually would have won more votes than Serino – 48,663 to 43,515. Serino made up the deficit with 6,626 votes on the Conservative line and another 1,500 from the Independence line, which was only 500 fewer than the 1,959 Smythe won on the WFP line.

In a post-fusion world, where do those votes go? There are few available studies to say. In our age of extreme political polarization, many would likely be absorbed into the two mainstream parties. If all the Conservative and Independence votes for the Republican candidate simply went to that same candidate on the GOP line, the results would be the same. But we don’t know if that would be true, or if perhaps they’d go to third parties that nominate far-right candidates. Maybe some would leave down-ballot races blank, or even vote for the Democrats. It’s impossible to know if voters on the Independence line think that the party’s stamp of approval means the Republican is, in some sense, independent.

The WFP argues that its small number of supporters are unique, anti-establishment voters who would not always show up to vote for a mainstream Democrat otherwise. “A Working Families Party endorsement and our ballot line brings in new votes for the candidates we support,” said Joe Dinkin, the WFP’s national campaigns director. “This is true upstate and in the suburbs, as well is in the city. Some of our voters are independents who are alienated from both parties and just want to vote for the candidates that will stick up for working families – people who see WFP as a credible validator fighting for good jobs, good schools and good government. Some are progressives who see the Democratic Party as too compromised by big money, and might cast a protest vote or not vote at all if the WFP isn't an option.”

The public evidence for Dinkin’s contention, though, is scant. What may happen, were fusion eliminated, is the reduction of any lingering clout for the Conservative and Independence parties in an overwhelmingly Democratic state. With or without a ballot line, both of these minor parties could not play kingmaker in Nassau and Suffolk counties without cross-endorsing. Each win patronage posts for backing either Republicans or Democrats. (In Suffolk, the Conservatives recently cut a deal to support a Democratic candidate for sheriff.)

Corruption scandals have been commonplace. One Conservative Party leader received a $65,000-per-year patronage gig after he helped cut a deal with the local Independence and Democratic parties to back a judicial candidate. In Suffolk, the local Democratic and Conservative parties often work in tandem, confusing voters. A previous Suffolk Conservative Party chairman, Ed Walsh, was sentenced to two years in prison for pocketing hundreds of thousands of dollars from the Suffolk sheriff’s department while golfing, gambling and politicking on county time.

Were fusion to be eliminated, third parties would not automatically lose ballot lines. They would simply be unable to cross-endorse candidates. Without fusion, these parties would still need to preserve their ballot status every four years by netting 50,000 votes for their own individual candidates in the gubernatorial race.

Fifty thousand votes, statewide, isn’t a lot. The Green Party has blown past this threshold without backing a mainstream Democrat. But the WFP and Conservatives would have to reckon with fielding their own candidates and running the risk of siphoning votes from a Democratic or Republican contender. The WFP, which backed Cuomo statewide, is particularly wary of the spoiler effect, and would have to choose between trying to keep a ballot line and taking votes from a Democrat.

The Conservatives, who back Republicans statewide, would be in a similar predicament. The Independence Party, lacking the same statewide infrastructure, would likely struggle the most to field a competitive third-party candidate under this scenario. If both parties lost their ballot lines, this would undoubtedly help Democratic candidates locally.

For Democrats and progressives, however, there is an argument for keeping fusion, one the WFP also makes: greater coordination between a progressive political party and a campaign that desperately needs its help. Political parties in New York operate under far looser campaign finance restrictions than typical outside organizations and can perform work, pro bono, that a political action committee cannot.

PACs face the same donation limits as individual donors in any given election cycle. The Cabán campaign, disorganized in its early months, benefited tremendously from the WFP’s guidance and the free services it provided when it was cash-strapped. The WFP paid for a campaign manager and members of the WFP performed work without being compensated by the campaign.

As a political party, the WFP was able to fully coordinate with Cabán without fear of running up against an in-kind limit. Were fusion ended and the WFP elected not to save its ballot line, it would lose their party status, becoming another outside organization with restrictions on how much they could donate and spend in coordination with a campaign.

The local Democratic organizations the WFP periodically challenges would enjoy the same coordination benefits, however. Katz, the party’s choice for Queens district attorney, has two party lawyers working on the recount free of charge. “Establishment candidates often receive the benefit of the infrastructure, skills and resources the Democratic Party machine has built up over the years, from campaign expertise to lawyers to voter files,” Dinkin said. “But without the Working Families Party, insurgent progressives running against the machine often have nothing of the kind.”

This doesn’t mean ending fusion would destroy the WFP. The progressive third party operates successfully in many states that do not allow fusion voting, including Wisconsin and Colorado. The Democratic Socialists of America, which collaborated with the WFP on the Cabán race, proved that a leftist organization can thrive in New York without any kind of ballot line. And the WFP could always spend heavily without coordinating with campaigns, like unions and PACs already do in many New York races.

With New York’s politics already so Democrat-dominated – and the demographic trend lines only pushing Republicans further into extinction – it’s not entirely clear fusion’s disappearance would change very much. Republicans are on the defensive and they will be for the foreseeable future – but ending fusion voting could hasten their demise.