Wednesday, March 28, 2007

TJ Testifies for Fusion Voting

[I got bumped from being able to give my testimony orally; too many people and not enough time. I did submit the following to the committee as written testimony, however...]

Testimony Before the Oregon House Ethics, Elections and Rules Committee
2007 Session
Pertaining to HB 3040, On Fusion Elections

Chair Rosenbaum, Members of the Committee:

I travel to Salem to testify today in support of House Bill 3040, which would reconstitute the principle and practice of fusion- or cross-endorsement voting in Oregon. I repeat that it would reconstitute the process; as in so many other areas of political life, ours was once one of the prime states in which fusion voting, among other practices of the burgeoning new progressive and populist movements, led to increased participation from a broader spectrum of the populace and the electorate, including vibrant minor parties who regularly influenced elections either on their own merits, or as cross-endorsers of candidates from another party.

Before most states had fully converted their electoral process to the centrally controlled “Australian secret ballot” that we know today, fusion voting was common across the country. Ballots were physically produced by parties, not government, and multiple endorsements or viable minor candidates were common, especially down-ticket.

The Pacific Northwest was a particular crucible for electoral reform; Idaho, Washington and Oregon all had very active minor parties in the last 15 years or so of the 19th Century. According to the Center for the Study of Pacific Northwest at the University of Washington, the Populist Party and movement rose from rural farming concerns in the face of a new manufacturing economy. Populist candidates garnered as much as 30% or more of the vote in major elections during the period; Populist candidate General James Weaver garnered 16% for President on the ticket in Oregon in 1892, and Populist legislators occupied seats in Salem. Among its champions was Abigail Scott Duniway, the famous Oregon suffragist, who worked for populist candidates and causes while seeking the broadening of the political process to include women.

Perhaps the most notable local Populist was Washington governor John Rogers, elected in 1896 despite not earning a plurality of votes on the Populist line—the Democrats as the minor party of the day in Washington had cross-endorsed Rogers, offering their party’s voters to him. The Populists also took over the state legislature in the same fashion. Vibrant minor parties such as the Prohibition, Democratic People’s, Populist and Social Democrats offered one of several choices to voters looking for a new way. It was a period of electoral experimentation and reform, its legacy seen in now-common features such as the citizen’s initiative, the citizen’s recall, direct primaries and of course suffragism for women, in 1912.

Whether to cure corruption, as the major parties charged, or to re-secure power and control over elections as the farmers and their urban working class allies claimed, by the end of the first World War almost no state remained to allow cross-endorsement voting.

Today in Oregon we see much the same political landscape as Duniway did then—a terrain often hostile to newcomers, minorities and women, those without means, farmers and other rural voters, with few outlets to serve their specific interests other than the major parties. A swing has occurred where non-affiliated voting in major parties reached as high as 38% in the 2004 elections, according to the American National Election Survey. In Oregon, currently more than 22% find themselves so ill-served by the existing parties that they have no affiliation at all. In many cases they may want to participate on a broader level, but prefer candidates to parties and in some cases would rather not vote than endorse a candidate with whom they weren’t 100% comfortable.

Enter cross-endorsement or fusion voting. By allowing multiple parties to endorse a single candidate (as long as the candidate agrees to the endorsement), voters who may not otherwise have participated will find that their vote now has measurable value. A candidate who in the past won his or her election on the backs of Libertarians or Greens who voted for the major candidate not wanting to “spoil” their vote, would never quite know the extent that these otherwise disaffected voters had in her victory.

But if the Greens cross-endorse the Democrat (or the Constitution Party fuses with the Republican candidate), and earn them five percent of the vote in a race decided by fewer than five points…suddenly there is a quantifiable accountability the candidate-elect must now recognize, and hopefully heed. As parties developed, another entirely plausible scenario would be multiple minor parties fusing to elect a single candidate that would outpoll both major candidates.

In the second situation the benefit of fusion is more obvious, but in either case a vote for the minor ticket is neither wasted nor unnoticed. And even when candidate election is not at stake, the concerns of minor parties register more loudly in the issues that are prioritized and debated. New York’s Working Families Party claims to have been pivotal in bringing an increase in the minimum wage to passage in the state legislature, based on its influence at the ballot box.

According to the Brennan Center for Justice at NYU, evidence from study of fusion voting indicates that it increases turnout to a certain extent, and to the extent that it doesn’t, politicians nonetheless tend to behave as if it does. To the degree that minor parties choose to cross-endorse other candidates, it also reduces the likelihood of distorted plurality victories, where a more extreme candidate might benefit from vote splitting among two competing moderate candidates. Voters gain more information about candidates based on the narrower ideological frame a minor party typically holds. Even single-issue parties like Right to Life or an environmental party can gain access to power by wielding their influence as a recognizable group.

Contrary to some assertions in the electoral marketplace, fusion voting does not enable extremist elements to take over government, unless they alone receive a plurality of the vote—at which point they cease to be extremist by definition, themselves becoming the mainstream by their number. Fusion does not undermine the third party; in fact the history of our country shows a strong correlation between fusion voting and the presence and vitality of minor parties.

And perhaps most pertinently to the entire body of legislators before me who hail from major parties, fusion does not undermine the two-party system. That system is an inevitable result of single-member representation for a district, where the winner must only receive a plurality. The most effective way to achieve a plurality in that situation is to seek a large bloc of votes at once, something only available to the major parties. While it is true that fusion voting may dilute the power of the two-party system in determining the outcome of our elections, I think that in fact is its strongest selling point. Fusion makes voting more tangibly worthwhile, which increases participation, which makes voting more worthwhile—a delightfully vicious circle.

Thank you for your time, and I urge a yes vote on HB3040. Let’s restore Oregon’s place as a model of full electoral participation.

Thank you,