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.

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