Opinion: The case for bringing back fusion voting

People constantly complain about political parties. And yet, in a society where people are free to express themselves and assemble together, forming parties is both logical and a valuable way to organize disagreements into choices that can be voted on. What most people dislike, I think, aren’t the parties themselves, but the way they shape and are shaped by how those elections actually operate. Which is why what United Kansas is trying to do deserves attention.

United Kansas is a new party in Kansas, and its main aim is to bring back fusion voting. Sometimes called multiparty nomination voting, it simply means that different parties, representing different sets of voters, can nominate the same person as a candidate for political office. Everyone who pays attention to politics is aware there are parties besides the Democrats and Republicans out there; we somewhat regularly see Libertarian party candidates, Green party candidates and more on our ballots. Fusion voting allows that two parties — say the Republicans and the Libertarians — could choose to back the same person, and the same candidate would then be presented on the ballot with the endorsement of both.

Fusion voting was commonplace in the first half of American history, before the electoral practices that invariably privilege two dominant parties became so entrenched. During the 19th century dozens of smaller parties regularly challenged or fused their nominees with those of other, larger parties, and by so doing obliged those major party organizations to embrace — or at least recognize — the priorities of various groups of voters. All of that made 19th century elections, for all their racism, sexism and corruption, in some important ways somewhat more representative than modern contests are (as the high voter turnouts a century ago demonstrate).

Unfortunately, Kansas made fusion voting illegal over a hundred years ago, mostly because Republican legislators wanted to prevent populist candidates from winning with the support of both Democratic and People’s party voters. Most other states banned fusion voting in the early 20th century for similar reasons, with New York and a few other states remaining as exceptions.

The U.S. Supreme Court has interpreted state bans on fusion voting as not violating any constitutional freedoms. But as party primaries have become ever more controlling, with small factions of extreme activists within a party frequently defining the options for all of the party’s supporters, essentially robbing certain voters of any effective voice, that ruling is due some reconsideration. United Kansas is preparing their legal arguments for when a state ban comes down on their nominees, with the hope that the Kansas Supreme Court, which has not been shy in the past when it comes to articulating a higher, state-specific reading of constitutional rights, might see the value of what they’re doing, and thus begin some much-needed rethinking.

It’s a long shot, of course. But the need is real. State elections in Kansas today rarely provide much opportunity for that former mainstay of Kansas voters: the moderate Republican. United Kansas believes they still exist and want to find a way to give their views an electoral outlet, which is currently denied them by the Republican leadership. (It’s not a surprise that most of the candidates that United Kansas is looking to nominate in order to challenge Kansas’ ban are Democrats).

Bringing back fusion voting alone won’t result in the structural and financial changes that American politics desperately needs. But it might be an important step in that direction. Here’s hoping the Kansas Supreme Court recognizes the freedoms that our state parties today aren’t serving particularly well, and leads us, and thus the country, in a better direction.

— Russell Arben Fox teaches politics at Friends University in Wichita.

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