by Rebecca C and Ross L
As the left-wing of the Democratic party has gained momentum since Trump’s election, and grassroots movements continue to grow, a window has opened for DSA-endorsed candidates to succeed in city and state elections. The stakes are higher than ever, and the resources of coalition partners are essential to putting socialists into positions of power. The last gubernatorial election is one illustration of a trend towards a re-alignment of labor management vs. rank-and-file labor interests and progressive voters. DSA is poised to take advantage of that realignment. As the electoral landscape changes, it is unclear what elements such as fusion voting mean for our political hopes.
What is fusion voting and how does it benefit DSA?
Fusion voting allows parties besides the big-Rs and Ds to participate in the electoral system without fear of vote-splitting. In heavily-Democratic New York, competitive elections largely play out during the primary, as a battle between centrists, leftists, and other factions for the Democratic nomination, and NYC-DSA’s electoral strategy is centered on winning Democratic primaries, rather than general elections. It’s important to remember that NYC-DSA is not a political party, although it sometimes performs the work of one. We mobilize our members and partners to canvass and campaign for DSA-endorsed candidates who support our side in the struggle against capitalist interests to achieve a variety of social reforms needed in NYC. But there is no DSA ballot line on local or state elections (historically, members have felt it is important to focusing on mass mobilization over participation in the electoral system) and we cannot perform many of the functions of a party, including direct transfer of funds.
The Working Families Party (WFP) is the most prominent “3rd” party in the state, and fusion voting allows them to endorse a progressive candidate in the primaries who then can run on both the Democratic and WFP ticket for the general election. Other notable fusion-based third parties in New York currently and historically include the Conservative Party, the Liberal Party, and the Independence Party. WFP endorsements can potentially provide resources, attention, and an additional ballot line for DSA-backed candidates, and as a party they have frequently provided extensive field resources for endorsed Democratic candidates.
The votes this candidate accrues in the general election allows WFP to keep their ballot line and continue to make unlimited cash transfers to their campaigns; in gubernatorial elections, 50,000 votes statewide is the threshold. Were fusion voting eliminated, and WFP required to run a candidate solely on their ballot line, the fear is fewer resources would go to WFP, as voters would focus on the safer bet of the Democratic party; and if a WFP candidate were to successfully get on the ballot, that candidate and the Democratic candidate would split the ticket, leading to the election of a Republican, who would represent a minority of voters. While the WFP has expanded into states without fusion voting, its model in New York would have to be redrawn from scratch.
Is Albany really going to eliminate fusion voting?
Anyone who asks why the New York State Democratic Party, backed by Gov. Cuomo, passed a non-binding resolution in March to ban fusion voting hasn’t been paying attention. The party machine should consider the ouster of the Republican-allied Independent Democratic Coalition (IDC) in the last election a victory for Democratic control of the state government, but instead there’s been increasing pushback against the notion of leftist candidates primarying incumbents, in alignment with the national political climate. The WFP’s endorsement of Cynthia Nixon intensified Cuomo’s thirst for revenge, despite the fact that WFP has endorsed him in the past (including in the 2018 general election).
The resolution was met with a letter of support for fusion voting by State Senator Jessica Ramos and signed by 25 other Democratic senators, and for a short time it looked like the matter had been tabled. However, a provision in the state budget passed on March 31st, which calls for the creation of a commission to study campaign finance reforms, includes a seemingly tangential directive for the body to consider changes to fusion voting. Of course Cuomo would indirectly (by design) have a controlling stake in the makeup of the commission.
What would a fusion voting ban mean for NYC-DSA?
The debate over fusion voting may affect the Working Families Party more than DSA. In 2017 and early 2018, the WFP generally chose not to endorse DSA-endorsed candidates, although after the federal primaries in June 2018, following Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s victory, this pattern notably changed. Since then the WFP endorsed DSA’s preferred candidates for governor, lieutenant governor, state senate (in the case of Julia Salazar), and now has endorsed Tiffany Cabán for Queens District Attorney.
The general election ballot would be most affected by changes to fusion voting. DSA’s victories in New York have largely come from grassroots organizing during the primary, which would continue whether or not fusion voting does. Nevertheless, it is clear why a change to New York’s elections - one that is based on the Governor’s spite, and could knee-cap a DSA ally - has been received unfavorably by progressives. Not only is a frequent coalition partner at risk, but some have observed that the moves against fusion voting are primarily meant to punish the left for succeeding. If that punishment succeeds, it may have no impact on DSA’s broader strategy, but some inclined to support DSA candidates may learn the lesson that eliminating fusion voting would be meant to teach.
Even so, fusion voting can allow more tactical flexibility for the DSA, as well as the ability to run candidates on a Socialist ballot line. For example, Jabari Brisport’s 2017 campaign for city council earned over 28% of the vote with both the Green and Socialist ballot lines. While unsuccessful, the Brisport campaign is an example of the potential for the utilization of fusion voting in a DSA campaign, one in which voters demonstrated they value distance from the Democratic Party. Indeed, if fusion voting were eliminated, and the WFP proved to be unviable in New York, the Socialist party or the slightly higher-profile Green Party, which has refused to cross-endorse candidates and favors ending fusion voting, might benefit. In the past, this position has fueled a perception of Green party candidates as hopeless spoilers. It remains to be seen if that would be the case with the right candidate in a no cross-endorsement race today, given how much the political landscape has shifted to the left.