In March 1999, the then-chairman of the Nassau County Democratic Party was convicted of bankruptcy fraud. Despite the scandal, Democrats picked up two Hempstead Village trustee seats for the first time in more than 20 years.
That unexpected outcome was the result of the new Working Families Party. The Democratic Party was floundering, but the WFP ran candidates in the Hempstead races and won.
Today, the WFP is a critical participant on New York’s political and legislative scene. It played a central role in shifting control of the State Senate from Republican to Democratic control. Legislatively, it is identified with minimum wage increases, a millionaire’s tax, and the Climate Leadership and Community Protection Act.
The WFP is in the news because of the creation of the New York State Public Financing Commission, which may propose new electoral rules regarding public financing of elections and fusion voting, which allows candidates to be nominated by more than one political party. The WFP is a fusion party, usually allied with Democrats. It supports candidates best aligned with its vision of a multi-racial, egalitarian society and economy.
On Long Island, some have argued that fusion is synonymous with corruption. Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone disagrees with how judicial elections in particular are manipulated by the leaders of political parties in both Nassau and Suffolk.
While he is correct about the problems created by the backroom system of judicial nominations, he is wrong about what causes it. It is not fusion at all, but rather the absence of primary elections for judicial nominations.
Indeed, the record of fusion voting in other states confirms that it is a healthy component of democracy. Connecticut, Oregon, Vermont, South Carolina, Pennsylvania and a few other states have allowed some or all candidates to accept endorsements from more than one party, enabling those minor party supporters to participate in politics without “spoiling.”
In the 19th century, fusion was legal in every state, but was undone when Republican power-brokers in the North and Democratic power-brokers in the South sought to limit the power of populist farmers and workers. Fortunately, the New York State Court of Appeals has repeatedly overturned efforts by the government to do away with fusion voting.
Even as fusion voting was eliminated in many states, citizens fought to limit the power of political bosses. The primary system was born, a system so ubiquitous that today we can hardly imagine a world without it. This reform, unlike anti-fusion laws, actually does reduce the power of bosses. Before primaries became the norm, party leaders selected candidates without any need to consult the party’s rank and file. The most prominent vestige of that power is found in judicial elections, as there are no primaries held for these nominations. This is the source of the (legal) corruption in Long Island politics.
Fusion is protected because the courts have said so. We strongly believe it is not going away. In this sense, it is not properly within the scope of the commission to eliminate the fusion ballot. If our elected leaders are serious about reducing political malfeasance and the power of bosses, the best and perhaps only way to do both is to establish a system of publicly financed elections, and to mandate primaries in judicial elections. But they should not tamper with fusion voting because it is legally protected.
Luke Elliott-Negri is a member of the state committee of the Working Families Party. Danny Calabro is a former union organizer who has been involved with the party since its inception.