By Chris McNickle
Al Smith, perhaps New York State’s greatest governor and one of its canniest, was a fact-based politician. “Let’s look at the record,” he liked to say when assessing a matter. Let’s do that with respect to fusion voting, which a state commission has been asked to review, and to propose recommendations with the force of law in December.
Fusion voting aggregates ballots cast for a single candidate on more than one political party line when determining the outcome of an election. The logic is clear. Whichever party a voter chose to register electoral support, the candidate and the policies espoused appealed better than the alternatives. Even so, many states do not allow it and require third party candidates to win or lose outright.
But no state can match the remarkable diversity of New York’s population, and the breadth of political loyalties it creates.
The state has practiced fusion voting since the mid-19th century. It has often had an impact on outcomes, which suggests it serves a purpose voters value. That ought to count the most when judging a political process in a democracy.
Consider this. For 40 of 80 years between 1933 and 2013 New York City was governed by mayors first elected on fusion tickets with the margin of victory coming from a third party. Fiorello LaGuardia, John Lindsay, Rudy Giuliani and Michael Bloomberg all won their initial bids for City Hall on that basis.
We have had similar events at the statewide level. In the 1994 race for New York governor, George Pataki, running as the Republican and Conservative candidate, defeated incumbent Democrat/Liberal Mario Cuomo. Ballots cast on the Conservative Party line put the challenger over the top.
Our Founding Fathers wrote in the Declaration of Independence, “Prudence, indeed, will dictate that Governments long established should not be changed for light and transient causes.”
No argument has been offered that justifies modifying New York’s well-tested process to give voters un-enamored with the two major parties a relevant alternative. Fusion voting gives clout to people and forces Democratic and Republican power brokers might otherwise ignore, expanding the scope of political participation.
There is, of course, a clear pattern to the third party-determined victories. They all allowed challengers to defeat Democrats, long the dominant party in New York. Lifelong Democrats like me might lament the individual outcomes, but a healthy skepticism about the consequences of de facto one-party rule will lead small “d” democrats to support fusion voting.
Events leading up to Fiorello LaGuardia’s 1933 victory make the point in colorful form. It was a time when the Democrats ruled New York with impunity. Mayor Jimmy Walker, Tammany Democrats’ leading man, had found time amidst his late night carousing and philandering to loot the government of several hundred thousand dollars. The details were too much even for a city electorate long inured to petty political pilfering.
Al Smith intervened for the good of the party. “You’re through,” Smith told Walker, a longtime friend. “You have to resign.” Tammany’s Democratic bosses threatened to nominate Walker again despite the scandal. “And what are you going to do about it?” one goaded Smith. “I’ll run against you,” Smith growled back. “Oh yeah, on what ticket?” the man who in those days exercised great control over the Democratic ballot line responded. “I could run on a Chinese laundry ticket and beat you and your crowd,” Smith roared back. That was one third party candidacy that never came to pass.
Walker resigned, and the next year New Yorkers elected fusion candidate Fiorello LaGuardia mayor. To this day many historians consider him the greatest leader ever to have held the office.
Chris McNickle is the author of “To Be Mayor of New York” and other books about New York politics and government.