Does Fusion Voting Offer Americans a Way Out of the Partisan Morass?

One of the great paradoxes of America’s polarized political system is that people seem to hate it, yet few can conceive of a way out.

Every once in a while, a third-party candidate catches fire — as the quirky billionaire Ross Perot did in the 1992 presidential race, appealing to a chunk of voters who were unhappy with deficits and trade deals. More often, though, such candidates fizzle.

Many people wring their hands about political polarization and calcification, but grudgingly accept it as the inevitable result of the way voters are sorting themselves by geography or education, or the baleful effects of social media and cable news, or the product of slicing and dicing by political operatives who stoke fear and outrage to win elections.

One of the latest and more intriguing efforts to try to change the system comes in the form of two forthcoming lawsuits by Protect Democracy, a nonprofit group, and a new outfit called the Moderate Party.

Starting the week after Thanksgiving, the two groups separately plan to sue the State of New Jersey to allow fusion voting, a practice the state banned in the 1920s. It’s legal in only a few states, including Connecticut, New York and Oregon.

Under fusion voting, multiple parties can nominate the same candidate, who then appears more than once on the ballot. Proponents say it allows voters who don’t feel comfortable with either major party to express their preferences without “wasting” votes on candidates with no hope of winning.

In New York, there are two prominent fusion parties: the Working Families Party, which often endorses Democratic candidates, and the Conservative Party, which typically backs Republicans.

What’s different about the New Jersey effort is that it is driven by the political center; the Moderate Party was co-founded by Richard A. Wolfe, a partner at the law firm Fried Frank and a former small-town mayor who told me he was repulsed by the Republican Party’s embrace of conspiracy theories and its fealty toward Donald Trump, but could not stomach voting for a Democrat.

Wolfe was a supporter of Representative Tom Malinowski, a moderate Democrat who lost his re-election bid to Thomas Kean Jr., a Republican. But when the Moderate Party petitioned the New Jersey secretary of state to allow Malinowski to be nominated on its ballot line, she ruled the move illegal.

The Moderate Party and Protect Democracy had originally hoped to file their suits appealing the ruling months ago, but held off amid concerns that the courts would not want to weigh in until after the election. Republicans also raised questions about the Moderate Party when news reports emerged that the House Majority PAC, a Democratic-aligned outside group linked to Speaker Nancy Pelosi, was underwriting ads in support of Malinowski through a super PAC with a similar name.

Representative Tom Malinowski of New Jersey after voting this month. A moderate Democrat, he lost his bid for re-election.Credit…Bryan Anselm for The New York Times

Now, the two groups are contemplating what could be a much larger nationwide effort in states with constitutions that seem congenial to fusion voting. New Jersey’s Constitution, for instance, contains strong protections for voting rights and for freedom of speech, assembly and association that Protect Democracy hopes to lean on to throw out the century-old ban on fusion tickets.

Lee Drutman, a senior fellow at the New America Foundation who supports fusion voting, compared America’s major political parties to “two tired old boxers who are fighting each other to the death, except that they’re both seemingly immortal.”

“There’s so little volatility from election to election,” Drutman said. “A few districts that are up for grabs. And yet so many voters are deeply frustrated but feel incredibly powerless.”

Drutman said he was encouraged by the results of a new poll of 800 New Jersey residents commissioned by his think tank and conducted by Braun Research.

In the poll, 81 percent of residents agreed with this statement: “The two-party system in the United States is not working because of all the fighting and gridlock, with both sides unable to solve important public problems.”

The respondents also seemed open to fusion voting, once it was explained to them; 58 percent said New Jersey should reinstate the practice, and 72 percent said that third-party candidates almost never won elections because of the perception that choosing them would be a “wasted” vote.

Beau Tremitiere, a lawyer at Protect Democracy, said that fusion voting “allows voters all over the political spectrum who care deeply about democracy and the rule of law to work together effectively,” adding, “With their own ballot line, they can play a decisive role in our elections and stem the rising tide of anti-democratic extremism.”

Fusion voting hasn’t always pushed the two major parties toward the center, however; the Working Families Party aims to tug the Democratic Party to the left on economic policy, for instance, even as it usually backs Democratic candidates in general elections.

In Oregon, however, the Independent Party, a centrist fusion party founded in 2007, has generally supported candidates who back its views on overhauling campaign finance. This year, the party endorsed a slate of mostly Democratic candidates for federal office, but declined to make a choice in the heated race for governor.

Eli Lehrer, the president of the R Street Institute, a center-right think tank, said that fusion voting worked best when it encouraged cross-party coalitions.

He pointed to New York and Connecticut, where candidates have courted support from fusion parties when they “want to send a signal that they are a different kind of candidate.”

In its heyday, the Liberal Party exerted its greatest influence on New York politics when it backed Republicans: It supported John Lindsay for mayor of New York in 1965, for instance, and Charles Goodell for senator in 1970.

Each of those races, oddly enough, was a spirited three-way contest that included a Conservative Party candidate named Buckley: William F. Buckley Jr., the National Review editor, who lost the mayoral race in 1965, and his brother James L. Buckley, who caucused with Republicans after winning a Senate seat.

New York, Lehrer said, “was the home of Rockefeller Republicans for a reason, and one of those reasons was fusion voting.”

What to read tonight

  • The Manhattan district attorney’s office is reviving its criminal investigation into Donald Trump, taking a fresh look at a hush-money payment he made to a pornographic actress with whom he had a sexual relationship.

  • ICYMI: Shane Goldmacher went to Las Vegas, where Republican presidential aspirants laid out their own cases against Trump. But fears are growing that a large G.O.P. field could allow Trump to divide and conquer in 2024, just as he did in 2016.

  • Adam Liptak contrasts the goals Chief Justice John Roberts laid out in 2006 as he wrapped up his first term on the Supreme Court with the reality of a court that is now widely seen as partisan. “His project is in shambles,” Adam concludes.

  • Trip Gabriel assesses how recent losses in Ohio are raising the bar for Senator Sherrod Brown, a Democrat who plans to run for re-election in 2024 in a state moving sharply to the right.

Thank you for reading On Politics, and for being a subscriber to The New York Times. — Blake

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