In 2009, the country was in the midst of the Great Recession. Everywhere, states were under fiscal strain, and New York was no exception. But in the spring, Governor Paterson signed a bill colloquially known as the millionaire’s tax, which generated billions in new revenue annually by creating new tax rates for high income earners. New York dealt with the economic crisis by taxing the rich rather than just slashing services and benefits, making it an outlier.
It is tricky to connect electoral systems to policy outcomes, but it is fair to argue that if it weren’t for the Working Families Party, New York would not have raised billions in new revenue in 2009; and if it weren’t for “fusion voting,” the Working Families Party (WFP) would not exist.
New York is one of a handful of states that allows some version of fusion, in which candidates can accept the ballot line of more than one political party. Since 1998, the WFP has used the fusion ballot as a tool to stitch together a complex coalition of labor unions, community organizations, and individual activists. But this week, the New York State Democratic Party moved to make changes to New York ballot access laws, and through those changes, to destroy the Working Families Party.
Once upon a time, fusion balloting was the law of the land. In the nineteenth century, it was commonplace for different parties to back some of the same candidates. Before the introduction of the so-called Australian ballot, parties — and not states — printed ballots and handed them to voters at the polls to then deposit in boxes. In this system, voters might not even know that a candidate appeared on more than one ballot.
The use of fusion voting was central to the rise of the Populists in the 1890s, and the major parties saw an opportunity to use supposed good government reform to crush the emerging alliance of rural farmers and the urban working class. State by state, Democratic and Republican elites conspired to ban fusion voting. In New York, the effort died in the courts, and the practice continues to this day.
Why, then, are Democratic elites again so intent on changing electoral law in New York?
The answer stretches back to the 2009 tax hike, and everything that ensued. The billionaire Tom Golisano, horrified by the economic and political hit, helped to organized “the Coup,” in which several Democrats in the State Senate crossed the aisle to caucus with Republicans. Again, the WFP played a central role in dragging them home, preserving the narrow majority for one more reasonably productive legislative session in 2010.
Democrats lost their majority in the Tea Party wave that year, but the Coup lived on in new form. In 2011, a group of Democrats created the Independent Democratic Conference (IDC) and caucused with Republicans, ensuring that even when the “Democrats” again took the Senate, Republicans would remain in power.
This bizarre arrangement stifled progressive legislation until 2018, when the WFP again played an important role in flipping the State Senate, first by helping to organize primary challenges to all eight members of the IDC and then by supporting Democrats in general election races against Republicans. The result, no doubt partly the product of anti-Trump sentiment at the polls, was a much more stable majority than in 2009, setting the state for some massive legislative battles in 2019.
The biggest of these was rent reform. The tenant movement successfully went on the offensive for the first time in decades. The resulting changes will drastically improve living for renters in New York, and, reportedly, cost the real estate industry billions. Many powerful figures in the state were not pleased.
But it was not the only 2019 fight. The Working Families Party and one of its founding affiliates, Citizen Action of New York, have long championed state-level public financing of elections. In the 2019 cycle, a win seemed within reach, but in the final hour, the legislature created a commission to develop a public financing system.
The commission must produce a recommendation by December 1, and if the legislature doesn’t act, that recommendation becomes law. But the commission had a poison pill: in addition to contemplating a system of public financing, it is moving to make changes to fusion voting and to how minor parties access the ballot. Not a single state legislator campaigned on the “issue” of fusion voting, and yet none other than the head of the New York State Democratic Party, Jay Jacobs, has made it one for the commission. And now the fix is in.
The commission’s proposal is truly stunning: they will move to “preserve” fusion voting, but make it harder to access the ballot—in a way that appears tailored to hammer the WFP. Under the current system, minor parties must earn 50,000 votes in the gubernatorial race every four years, either for a major party candidate or for their own independent candidate, in order to have ballot access. The commission has proposed to increase that number to 130,000 or 2 percent of the vote (whichever is larger), and to force recertification of ballot access in presidential years.
The vote threshold itself is telling: given typical WFP votes in gubernatorial elections, the number would be difficult for the party to reach, but easy for the fusion-based Conservative Party to attain. In high-turnout years, the 2 percent threshold would prove even harder. But the proposal to recertify in presidential years is yet more devious.
In order to back the Democratic presidential nominee, the WFP needs to put the many electors who actually go to the Electoral College on their ballot. Under the proposed system, Jacobs would simply need to tell one elector to refuse the WFP endorsement, and the WFP would lose ballot status. Again, the Conservative Party would be unlikely to face such enmity from the ideologically aligned Republican Party.
The fusion ballot is far from a cure-all for what ails the Left, and the past few years have demonstrated how even the Democratic Party ballot line can be used to push a progressive agenda. In fact, historically, the WFP has done its most important work in Democratic primaries, using them to, for example, upend the racist Rockefeller drug laws. But we should be wary when elites seek electoral reform, especially reform that appears tailored to destroy a single organization.
In the 1890s, “good government” elites eliminated fusion voting in states throughout the country in a thinly veiled effort to destroy a powerful left alliance. More than a hundred years later, they have made essentially the same move in New York. Why? Because even the modest amount of power the WFP has managed to accumulate, the billion-dollar wealth transfers to the poor and working class that their efforts have facilitated, are just too much for the rich and the powerful to stand.
Better to destroy a twenty-year-old progressive political party than to cede another inch.