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May 21, 2019

End fusion voting in New York: Getting rid of cross-endorsements would serve voters and small political parties alike

November 29, 2018
One big ballot (

With complete control of the state Legislature and the governor’s mansion being handed to New York Democrats starting in January, party leaders are floating the enactment of long-delayed political moves. Prominent among the proposed changes is putting New York in line with most of the rest of the country and getting rid of the fusion tickets that have helped proliferate multiple parties throughout the state that exist essentially to extort elected officials. This change could prove to be beneficial not only for New York voters but for the third parties themselves.

This past election, New Yorkers got a peek at the odd use of fusion, or cross-ballot, tickets. Two prominent Democratic candidates ran and lost in their party’s primary vote — Cynthia Nixon for governor and Congressman Joe Crowley for reelection. Yet both remained on the November ballot, potentially serving as spoilers in the general election race. The reason that both of them got to run despite losing in the general election was that they were nominated by the Working Families Party and kept that ballot line. In both cases, the extra ballot line did not matter. But it has repeatedly in the past.

Currently, the Working Families Party, the Conservative Party and Independent Party survive as prominent political entities because of a quirk in state law. New York is one of the only states that allow candidates to run on multiple ballot lines in a race — a cross-endorsement or “fusion” ticket. Forty-two states ban this in almost all elections, forcing candidates to choose to run as the standard bearer of only one party.

New York shows the problems with fusion tickets. While the hope of the small parties is that a cross-endorsement will result in candidates adopting that party’s political viewpoints, New York generally has a different experience. The small parties frequently just cross-endorse one of the top candidates, who accept the line to prevent another ideologically similar candidate from taking votes away in the general election.

The smaller parties may be started with a pure intention, but they frequently use the cross-endorsements to gain political power and patronage jobs. The downfall of the old Liberal Party serves as one cautionary tale. It was founded by committed liberals in the 1940s. It played a real role in New York politics, including serving as the platform for Mayor John Lindsay’s successful reelection run after he lost the Republican line. But by the 1980s, the party was derided as neither liberal nor a party. It had become dominated by Raymond Harding, who gained power and influence following the party’s backing of Rudolph Giuliani, and eventually was caught up in the scandal that brought down former state Controller Alan Hevesi.

The Liberal Party eventually died after choosing the wrong side in the 2002 Democratic gubernatorial primary; it backed Andrew Cuomo, who lost the primary and later pulled out of the race. The party failed to get the required 50,000 votes in the general election and lost its ballot line.

The death of fusion tickets would simplify the ballot and prevent candidates from being held hostage by small parties that own ballot lines. At the same time, legitimate third parties would benefit. They would be forced to run serious candidates for top positions. Voters in New York have a history of rewarding real third-party challengers. In addition to Lindsay, Conservative James Buckley won a U.S Senate seat in 1970, and Conservative Herbert London almost topped Republican candidate Pierre Rinfret in Mario Cuomo’s 1990 gubernatorial victory.

Third parties have an important role to play in New York politics. The fact that there is an overwhelming advantage to set up fusion tickets only inhibits their ability to grow and potentially serve as a source of real leaders instead of a patronage machine. Democrats have a real chance to help out the state’s political system by banning fusion tickets.

Spivak is a senior fellow at the Hugh L. Carey Institute for Government Reform at Wagner College. He writes the Recall Election Blog.

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