Fusion Voting in New York, the Working Families Party & Close Elections

New York State has an unusual way of conducting elections. Here, one candidate can run for office on the ballot lines of more than one political party. All votes each candidate receives on all lines get added up into one final total – it’s called “fusion voting,” and it’s actually not permitted in most states. But it adds a very interesting wrinkle to New York politics.

For instance, back in 1993, the corrupt and thankfully defunct Liberal Party gave its line in the NYC mayor’s race to Rudy Giuliani. This gave Democrats who opposed David Dinkins but couldn’t countenance pulling the Republican lever a way to vote for Rudy that salved their consciences (even if it had zero practical effect). Giuliani scored some 62,000 votes on the Liberal line, but won by only 57K overall, putting him forever in Liberal chair Ray Harding’s debt. This debt was repaid through patronage, a common stock-in-trade for Harding – and an activity he was eventually indicted for last year (in connection with his dealings with Alan Hevesi).

Not all third-party behavior in New York is this colorful or unseemly. There are fewer small parties today than in the past, and only three of them matter: the Conservative Party, the Independence Party, and the Working Families Party. To get on the ballot in the first place, you need to undertake a difficult, state-wide signature drive. To stay on the ballot, you need to get at least 50,000 votes for governor on your line every four years. Most minor parties, like the Green Party or the Right to Life Party, can’t sustain this and eventually wither. (Same with the Liberals.) The survivors, however, endure.

The Conservatives, as you’d expect, almost always cross-endorse Republicans (though occasionally they back Democrats). They act as a grumpy right-ward pressure group and have been known to split the vote in favor of Democrats – remember NY-23 last year? (Something similar also happened in the same region in a race which led to Dem David Valesky getting elected to the state Senate a few years ago.)

The Independence Party, near as I can tell, is a vestige from the Ross Perot days (though it was founded shortly before his presidential run). My personal opinion is that it remains a force because enough people register as members thinking instead that they are registering as “independents.” (To do that in NY, you need to leave the party selection box on your registration form blank.) Plenty of people probably vote that line for similar reasons. The IP doesn’t have much of a platform and sometimes experiences local power struggles reminiscent of the SDS, but for any politician craving the aura of “independence” (ie, all of them), it’s a bonus.

Finally, there’s the most potent of the bunch, the Working Families Party. Formed in 1998 as the Liberal Party was clearly dying, they are by far the best organized and most powerful of the bunch. They are tightly aligned with NY’s unions and stake out a pretty progressive platform. They also offer a lot more than just their ballot line – a full-fledged WFP endorsement comes with serious field resources as well. At the federal level, they’ve cross-endorsing Dems since 2000. (They’ve supported some Republicans at other levels in the past, but I’ve already expressed enough grar about that to last a lifetime.)

Anyhow, by my count, the WFP has provided the margin of victory in five House races in New York. They are:

Year CD Democrat Overall Margin WFP Votes Without WFP
2002 1 Timothy Bishop 2,752 2,951 -199
2004 27 Brian Higgins 3,774 8,091 -4,317
2008 29 Eric Massa 5,330 9,003 -3,673
2009 20 Scott Murphy 726 3,839 -3,113
2009 23 Bill Owens 3,584 6,589 -3,005

The next-best “near-miss” performance was Dan Maffei’s run against Jim Walsh in 2006, which he lost by just 3,400 votes (and where the WFP supplied 6,500). On the flipside, Mike Arcuri’s close shave had very little margin for error – without the WFP line, he would have won by just 465 votes, instead of 9,919. And incidentally, the Working Families Party has also found its way into neighboring Connecticut, where they gave their line to all five Democrats who ran for Congress in 2008. That year, they helped pad out Jim Himes’s victory from fewer than 3,000 votes to almost 12,000.

The bottom line is that the WFP’s recent decision not to back any Democrats who vote against healthcare reform can and very likely will have a material impact on the 2010 elections. In recent years, almost every Dem running for federal office in NY has gotten the WFP line. For vulnerable Democrats in close races, if the WFP endorsement is not forthcoming, it will be missed.

22 thoughts on “Fusion Voting in New York, the Working Families Party & Close Elections”

  1. while the WFP may have huge resources at their disposal.. I question if the WFP voters would actually turn away from Democrats.

    Let me put it this way.. if a Dem candidate was only on the Democratic ballot… isn’t there a strong chance that those who normally vote for him on the WFP label would just vote in the Democratic column next time.

    I would image many Dem voters in NY simply vote on the WFP label because they know it will be merged with the Dem totals at the end.

  2. I didn’t realize there were other states that forbade fusion voting. Has anyone sued to try to overturn such a ban on Constitutional grounds? Which states other than New York and, I guess, Connecticut allow fusion voting?

  3. is really really weird. They ran Bloomberg for NYC Mayor last year, and McCain/Palin in 08. But in 2006 they ran Spitzer/Paterson for Governor and Hillary for Senate, and in 2004 they ran Ralph Nader for President.

    Go figure.

  4. It’s huge that Democratic allies are going to the mat to push Democratic House members to vote YES this weekend.  I know they’re not truly happy with the legislation, that they wanted so much more, but so did I and it’s huge for November to get this thing passed.  As we get close to the vote, I’m increasingly convinced passing this legislation is the single most important thing House Democrats can do to ensure a Democratic majority in the 112th Congress.  When you’re the majority, you keep winning by showing you can govern and get things done.  This vote coming up is the defining test for that and will shape my view of our chances in so many House races, and some Senate races, this fall.

  5. 1st of all a little history. The Liberal Party of NY was founded in 1944 as an alternative to the NY American Labor Party (which at the time was beign taken over by Communist) as a way for Leftist in NY uncomforable with the NY Democrat Party’s assosication with Tammany Hall & corruption to vote for FDR. The were a driving force behind and big supporters of NY Mayor Lindsay, Jacob Javitz and Mario Cuomo (who the Liberals backed over Ed Koch in 1977).

    They lost the ballot spot they held since 1944 only in 2002 when they back Andrew Cuomo’s disasterous campaign for Gov. When Andrew Cuomo crashed & burned & Carl McCall got the Dem nomination the Liberals couldn’t get their 50,000 votes and lost their ballot status.

    Working Families Party was founded by ACORN and other labor groups in 1998 as a way to take down the Liberal Party for their support of Giuliani. The Party bascially is another way for Labor Unions in New York to exert their influnce over politicians. Try to cut Medicare funding in NY or slash state payroll and you have to answer to the WF Party.

    Although right now the Working Families Party is in a bit of trouble right now. Basically the created a sham corporation to illegally funnel money to candidates they supported in the recent NYC elections. They are currently being investigated by the US Attorney’s office:


    So we will see if the Party’s funny money schemes hurt them enough for candidates to stay away.

    While the Indepence Party of New York does trace it’s orgins back to Ross Perot, it only gained ballot access in 1994 when billionaire Tom Golisano made his 1st Indy run for Gov and have been aroud ever since. Their biggest problem is that Lenora Fulani and her crazy cult followers all registered in the Party and bascially took over the New York City chapters. So the old school Independent Perot/Golisano people have been feuding with Fulani and her loons ever since.

    As for the NY Conservative Party. They were a direct response to the NY Republican Party being contolled by Rockefeller and his very liberal followers. In many ways 50 to 60 years ago the NY Republican Party was to the left of the NY Democratic Party. The Conservative Party ran William Buckely for mayor of NYC in 1965 and elected James Buckely Senator in 1970. They also played an important roll in moving the NY GOP to be more inline with the conservative national party.

  6. And would they use their resources to GOTV for that other candidate? (Presumably some dude who is not the Democratic candidate in the district)

    Unless the WFP goes that far, I’m not sure their “non-endorsement” of a Democratic candidate would make a significant difference (unless the race is very close).

  7. For example, before going the way of the dodo, my Grandpa was a straight-line Liberal Party voter (which meant that he would’ve voted for Giuliani for mayor).

  8. Their ballot question failed by a nearly two to one margin, but the party did get official ballot status for the next two years, before disappearing as quickly as they appeared.

  9. written by a right winger. ACORN founding the WFP, REALLY!!!The controversy over their GOTV operation was a right wing lawsuit drugged up by the likes of Staten Island conservatives Guy Molinari etc, to besmear the WFP and the legal case ended in the WFP favor!

    The Liberal Party was founded , not as an alternative to the communists but because FDR was in a tough NY race for President against a fellow NY Governor, Tom Dewey and the Roosevelt supporters felt they needed an acceptable second line for independent minded NY voters and liberal Republican voters to vote for FDR without having to vote on the Democratic line!

    The part about the Conservatives forming to bring down the Rockefeller/Javits/Lefkowitz Republicans is accurate. They very much succeeded because the Republicans lost the Liberal cross endorsement to progressive Democrats and could not win office on just their one line so they went over to nominating candidates acceptable to the Conservatives, the prototypical tail wagging the dog!

    The IP problem is that unlike the WFP progressive pull on the Democratic Party and the Conservative rightward pull on the Republicans, the IP really has no clear ideology or mission, They cross endorse Republicans for State Senate because they want a Republican State Senate, they endorsed Eliot Spitzer for Governor, it seems as though patronage selling of their line is more the cottage industry they seek.

  10. In comparison to today’s Republicans, or to the Goldwater/Reagan wing of the Republican Party, which was considered radical-conservative in those days, yes, definitely. Compared to the liberal Democrats of those days? Not on your life! Rockefeller and his followers were believers in noblesse oblige, but did you forget the Rockefeller Drug Laws?

  11. Really? Truth is NY American Labor Party was largely taken over by Communist. Remember we are talking about 1944 when the Communist Soviet Union was our ally vs Nazi Germany.

    The ALP was formed by former members of the Socialist Party(that is a fact) and most of the red baiting against it was done by the Democrats in NY who didnt like the fact that the ALP back LaGuardia for Mayor and Dewey for DA.

    ALP backed FDR for re-election in 1944 so he already had a 2nd line. The Liberal in was formed to give him a 3rd and NY voters an alternative to the Tammany Dems and the “Red” ALP.

    As for ACORN and labor unions founding the Working Families Party that is a fact. ACORN played a major role in getting the WP set up back in 1998. It’s not my fault what happend to ACORN since then. Don’t blame me because ACORN today is concered by some to be a tainted organization.

    As for the fact that the US Attorney’s office is investigating them well…. they are, it’s a fact. The charges might have been brought to light by a former Giuliani lackey but they are out there and are being investigated now by Obama’s justice department. I am not making that up it’s a fact. I brought it up because if the investigation gets worst I wouldnt be surprised to see some pols try to distance themselves from the WF.

    That could be important if the WF is planning to make a 3rd party challenge to sitting Democratic congressmen in swing districts.

  12. New York politics was kind of wierd. Many of the NY Rockefeller type of Republicans were to the left of their Democratic opponents. Lindsay a Republican was a lot more liberal than Abe Beame. LaGuardia was much more liberal than any of his Democratic opponents. Jacob Javitz was clearly quite liberal.

    Rockefeller Republicans in New York were the ones who pushed for the legalization of abortion in NY way before Roe v Wade was passed and did so over the opposition of many blue collar Democrats.

    Obviously a lot has changed since then. Mainly due to the Conservative Party of New York pushing the GOP way to the right and the Red/Blueing of America. A liberal Republican has no place in the GOP any more. For proof of that just look at what happened to our friend Scozzafava. And by the same token a conservative Democrat gets pushed out too (which is why Joe Libermann is an Independent).

  13. who were more liberal than he was. But yeah, he was a pretty liberal Republican – much more so than Rockefeller, I do believe. And one way is that he was from New York City and did a lot more for the city – a liberal value, considering how much more we pay in taxes than we get back in services and how many poor people live here. I know my father believes that Rockefeller founded SUNY in order to weaken CUNY and benefit upstate New York at least in part at New York City’s expense, and it’s a pretty plausible point of view, since it’s had that effect and drawn a lot of students from New York City (including me – alumnus of SUNY at Purchase and SUNY at Stony Brook).

    LaGuardia, yes, was really liberal, but that goes back way further than Governor Rockefeller.

    And abortion was a civil libertarian issue. The Republican Party had a strong libertarian streak. That didn’t make them liberal. Goldwater was a very strong civil libertarian, though he came to understand the importance of civil rights very late, after having opposed laws governing the behavior of businesses on civil libertarian grounds.

    New York City is a special case, because if you really wanted to be a reformer, you had to be a Republican – and to a large extent still do, but even more so in the Tammany Hall days. That’s why LaGuardia, Lindsay, and Bloomberg didn’t run as Democrats. Koch may have been somewhat of an exception, but boy was his administration – though never he, himself, apparently – riddled with corruption! But I don’t know enough to know that Abe Beame was less liberal than Lindsay. What I remember about Beame is that he didn’t get the streets plowed worth a damn after the big snowstorm in 1978 and was voted out of office in large part because of that. Since Beame was in office during the Fiscal Crisis, he quite literally didn’t have the power to be profligate like Lindsay, had he wanted to do so, if that’s what you mean by “less liberal.”

    You may know more than I do about some of this, so I’ll look forward to your response, but my feeling about the Rockefeller wing is that they were a milder form of Republican but definitely not New Deal-type liberals, and that it was more about favoring the rich but giving some support to the poor out of noblesse oblige – definitely not out of any belief in the importance of equality of anything (whether of opportunity or whatever).

    I may be somewhat biased from having had a bad experience in playing a job for the Rockefellers in the 1980s. The way they treated us showed me something about their attitude toward workers. But in fairness, I should say that I have no way of knowing how really liberal multimillionaires like the Kennedys treat people who actually work for them.

  14. I can’t speak to how the Rockefeller family treated you in the 80’s but since Nelson died in 1979 I am sure he had nothing to do with your bad experience with his family.

    As for how liberal he was. Well he vastly increased the  role of the State in education, environmental protection, transportation, housing, welfare, medical aid, civil rights, and the arts.

    In fact a main reason New York State spends so much on Medicare (more than Texas, California and Florida) was because of policies started under Rockefeller.

    As for Javitz well when he 1st ran for Senate the Democrats ran to his right. In fact Javitz was even “red baited” by his Democrat opponent NYC Mayor Robert Wagner who claimed Javitz had ties to Communists in 1946 (re: he was backed by the American Labor Party when he 1st ran for Congress).

    As for Javitz’s other Democratic opponents well he ran against Ramsey Clark in 1976. Which I guess would be kind of like the modern day equvilant of an election between Joe Lieberman and Dennis Kucinich.

  15. My parents probably made a mistake, then.

    I thought Javits was a great senator, by the way, if I didn’t already say so. Incidentally, I was a recipient of the Javits Memorial Fellowship for 4 years of graduate school. He and Claiborne Pell did a great deal for education and richly deserve to be memorialized (Senator Pell, of course, is remembered in the Pell Grants).

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