By: Caiti Anderson
There is no state quite like New York – and not many election laws quite like New York’s, either. As one example, only New York and six other states permit fusion voting. On a fusion ballot, a candidate can be listed as candidate for more than one party. Fusion voting, as noted the 1997 Supreme Court decision of Timmons v. Twin Cities Area New Party, had its heyday during the Gilded Age. Political parties, rather than governmental entities, distributed their own ballots to voters but did not affirmatively tell voters what other parties endorsed the same candidate(s) they supported. Thus, Candidate Smith could be supported by both the Granger and Republican parties, but those who voted the Granger ballot would not necessarily know from the ballot the Granger party handed them that the Republican Party also supported Smith.
All of this changed with the contentious election of 1888, when Democratic President Grover Cleveland lost to Republican Benjamin Harrison, even though Cleveland won the popular vote by 0.8%. Harrison carried Indiana, his home state, but only through ballot chicanery: the Republican Party passed out its ballots en masse and paid men to illegally cast additional ballots. After the scandal emerged, it was too late – Harrison was president, and America was angry.
The Progressive movement latched onto this populist anger and pushed through a series of election reforms at the turn of the nineteenth century. As state and local governments began to print their own ballots, the fusion ballot steadily lost support.
New York, however, has maintained the fusion ballot status quo. Although it occasionally comes under attack as an unfair practice, others laud its ability to grant a greater voice to third parties. Nevertheless, as the 2016 election shows its boon to third parties seems more like a benefit to the Democratic and Republican parties.
Figure 1 is a partial copy of a November 2016 New York absentee ballot. As you can see, three presidential candidates (Hillary Clinton, Donald Trump, and Gary Johnson) appear on the ballot more than once.
Fusion voting in a presidential election is more complicated than other races because of the Electoral College. When voting for a presidential candidate, a voter is actually voting for an elector to the Electoral College, not the candidate herself.
Let’s look at Hillary Clinton (Figure 2). She appears as the candidate for the Democratic, Working Families, and Women’s Equality parties. Because these parties submitted identical lists of Electoral College delegates to the New York State Board of Elections, each of these candidate slots offer an opportunity to vote for the same elector for Clinton. Thus, a vote for Clinton under the Women’s Equality ticket is, in essence, the same as voting for her under the Democratic ticket – the vote will be aggregated towards the same elector count. The same is true for Donald Trump appearing as the Republican and Conservative parties’ nominee.
Gary Johnson, on the other hand, has a major problem.
New York’s definition of a political party is one that received at least 50,000 votes in the most recent gubernatorial election. Only political parties have automatic access to the ballot, meaning that, in essence, only the Democratic and Republican parties are automatically qualified to be on the ballot. Independent parties must submit petitions with 15,000 signatures in order to qualify for the presidential ballot.
Gary Johnson’s Libertarian Party obtained the necessary signatures to put Johnson on the presidential ballot and submitted the list of Electoral College delegates to the State Board. After this, however, the Independence Party also endorsed Johnson, but submitted a different list of Electoral College delegates than the Libertarian Party. Because of this, Johnson’s vote totals for the Libertarian and Independence parties will not be aggregated.
Say, for example, Johnson won 30% of the vote under the Libertarian Party and 5% under the Independence Party, while Clinton won 34%, Trump won 29%, and Jill Stein won 2%. Johnson would have the majority of the votes at 35%, but Clinton would have the most electors and would win New York.
As unlikely as the scenario seems (Clinton has a >99% chance of winning New York at the time of publication), it is important for New Yorkers to take a hard look at the merits of fusion voting. Although fusion voting supposedly helps third parties, it seems to only help those third parties who support major party candidates – meaning it ultimately helps major parties. Maybe it is time to recognize the real value of fusion voting in New York: the ability of placing ideas on the ballot.