So there is a desire for third parties from people with widely varying ideological positions and backgrounds. But in most places in the U.S., third parties are not viable. This is a consequence of "Duverger's law", the principle that any political system with simple majority voting tends to evolve into a two-party system, because minor parties tend to act as spoilers. This is certainly no ironclad law, but it seems to generally hold true in the United States.
So people looking to create viable alternatives to the two main parties often advocate for some type of electoral reform, such as proportional representation or instant-runoff voting. Some folks who wish for viable third parties admire the multi-party democracies of Europe, where many ideologically varied parties govern through coalitions. However, these countries use a parliamentary system of democracy with proportional representation that is quite different from America's presidential system. Changing our electoral system in this way would result in a practice of democracy that is quite different from what Americans expect, and would generally require sweeping constitutional reforms or even a new constitutional convention if implemented above the level of local government. Americans generally don't expect opposition parties to field a shadow government or dissolve the government when they win an election.
There is an easier way to enable viable third parties, however, with a simple electoral reform that hearkens back to the earlier days of American democracy: electoral fusion. When I moved to New York some years ago, I was surprised by how viable third parties were there. It's certainly not a perfect system, and it may be a necessary-but-not-sufficient change to create viable third parties, but it can be very functional in the right situations.
Electoral fusion received a lot of press last year as a consequence of the dramatic 2009 special election in New York's 23rd Congressional district. After President Barack Obama nominated the conservative-leaning district's Congressman, John H. McHugh, as the Secretary of the Army, a special election was scheduled to fill his seat. Eleven Republican Party county chairs chose moderate Republican Dede Scozzafava as the GOP nominee for the race, while the Democratic Party chose Bill Owens as their nominee, who was cross-endorsed by the Working Families Party. However, the Conservative Party, who normally cross-endorses the Republican candidate, chose longtime Republican Doug Hoffman as their nominee. Scozzafava fared poorly in the polling and dropped out of the race, leaving Hoffman as the conservative frontrunner. Although Hoffman narrowly lost the general election, if he had won, it would have been a victory for ideological conservatives who wanted to ensure that conservative Republicans, not moderate ones, held the seat. Hoffman's bid for the seat was a consequence of New York's inclusion of viable third parties, driven by electoral fusion.
Electoral fusion is a system in which third parties appear on the ballot, but are allowed to cross-endorse the candidates of other parties. Some of the major third parties in New York include the Working Families Party, associated with labor unions, and the Conservative Party, dedicated to promoting ideological conservatism. Other parties include the Right to Life Party, the Independence Party, and (formerly) the Liberal Party. In most elections, the Democratic, Republican, Working Families, and Conservative Parties will all appear on the ballot, but the Working Families Party will endorse the Democrat candidate and the Conservative Party will endorse the Republican candidate. So for example, if (hypothetical) incumbent Democrat Michael Brown* was being challenged by Republican William Jones*, Michael Brown would appear on the ballot as a candidate of the Democratic Party and the Working Families Party, while William Jones would appear on the ballot as a candidate of the Republican Party and the Conservative Party.
One consequence is that voters can more clearly signal politicians their priorities and beliefs. If Michael Brown wins re-election due to a large turnout by union voters voting on the Working Families line, he might reasonably conclude that labor issues are a high priority for his constituents. If William Jones is swept into office by voters voting on the Conservative Party line, it might convince him to take a more conservative, rather than moderate, tack as a Republican. Or imagine that William Jones was endorsed by the Republican Party, the Conservative Party, the Right to Life Party, and the Libertarian Party. If Jones received relatively few votes on the Right to Life Party line but many votes on the Libertarian Party line, he might reasonably conclude that liberty and property rights are more especially important to his constituents, and build his record on that.
Another consequence is that in many districts, third parties can routinely attract enough votes to stay on the ballot. And when necessary, they can field their own candidates. Often, cross-endorsing the candidate of the two large parties allows them to exist in "sleeper mode", waiting for the time when fielding an independent candidate can be useful. And third parties are certainly not limited to rubber stamping the candidates of the main parties.
Alyssa Katz's 2005 story in the Nation highlights some of these effects. She describes how the Working Families Party in 2004 endorsed Republican State Senator Nick Spano, who won re-election by only 18 votes, which infuriated many progressive Democrats but helped lead to the GOP relenting in its long opposition to a minimum wage hike the WFP wanted. In an unusual election in 2003, Letitia James won a New york City Council seat as an Working Families Party candidate running against a Democratic candidate who had been convicted of soliciting prostitutes and not paying child support.
This is what happened in the 2009 New York special election. Generally, the Conservative Party cross-endorses the Republican candidate. But in this case, committed conservatives who were unsatisfied with the ideological position of Scozzafava nominated Hoffman to run on the Conservative Party line. This eventually impelled Scozzafava to drop out of the race, which was widely regarded by conservatives as a victory for their ideological preferences.
So the New York special election demonstrated the advantage of allowing voters to more clearly express their preferences. And it is an important tool to fight corrupt incumbents in otherwise noncompetitive districts.
Guest-blogging at the Volokh Conspiracy, David Schleicher observed last year that electoral fusion helps reduce the lack of competitiveness in city council elections, leading to the elections of Republicans Fiorella Laguardia, Rudy Giuliani and Michael Bloomberg in largely Democratic New York City. Many districts have a very partisan electorate, which can lead to corrupt political machines; electoral fusion was a key ingredient in the fight against Tammany Hall.
Moreover, unlike proportional representation or instant runoff voting, electoral fusion is not alien to American democracy. Fusion has a long history in America; during the 19th century, it was practiced in elections at all levels of government. This practice only ended at the end of the 19th century, when ballot rules were introduced that required political parties to obtain access to the ballot through petitions, and the two dominant parties outlawed the practice of letting a candidate's name appear on the ballot twice. The rationale for this was merely to protect the hegemony of the Democratic and Republican parties. That is the sole purpose of banning electoral fusion: to ensure that the two main parties have a permanent duopoly on political representation.
New York is the only state that didn't ban electoral fusion at the time; it was the only state that followed the argument that electoral fusion is often the only way to defeat an entrenched and corrupt political machine. And so New York was the only state to preserve a political system that included more than three parties. Electoral fusion is legal or has been legalized in a few other states, although third parties have not necessarily been as successful as in New York. In 2009, Oregon legalized fusion voting, aiding the Independent Party of Oregon and other parties. The National Open Ballot Project is one organization that advocates this.
Of course, electoral fusion is not without its critics, who protest the way it enables vanity parties, or criticize specific third parties like the Working Families Party from both the right or the left. The Working Families Party certainly is one of the most notable New York parties, and attracts attention for its successes, organization, and practices (1, 2, 3). A system that allows third parties to exist will enable a diverse group of parties: some will be terrible, or ideologically repellant to many people. The WFP will be stronger or more prominent in some districts, and the Right to Life Party more so in others. In addition to a Conservative Party and a Liberal Party, there may be a Socialist Party competing in the marketplace of ideas. But that doesn't mean that the existence of third parties can't improve elections or political representation within the context of our two-party system. And legalizing electoral fusion would be a simple, easy change.
- Why don't we have third parties anymore? The history of electoral fusion
- Louisville's 1890s-1900s political machine
- Electoral fusion in Kentucky law
* These names are made up from the fourth and fifth most popular first names and surnames in the U.S. Any similarity to real candidates is accidental.