What Happens if the PA Supreme Court Allows Fusion Voting?

(How fusion voting could lead more energetic municipal elections | Image: Duke Energy)

The PA Supreme Court could be on the verge of expanding fusion voting in Pennsylvania, where candidates can run on more than one party's ballot line, with some potentially fascinating consequences for municipal elections in Philadelphia. 

What's happened so far?

Read Jonathan Lai's long piece on this for the full play-by-play, but the gist is that Rep. Chris Rabb (HD-200) and the Pennsylvania Working Families Party, a left-wing advocacy group that has political party status in New York and a few other places, sued the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania over the state-level ban on fusion voting, and the case has quietly made its way to the PA Supreme Court. The Supremes heard oral arguments in September, and could rule on this at any time.

After Rabb secured the Democratic nomination for State Rep, Working Families asked to nominate him as their candidate as well. The state rejected this, and then they appealed the decision all the way to the state Supreme Court. Commonwealth Court ruled against Rabb and WFP, and now the PA Supreme Court will issue the final ruling on the question.

More labels

Fusion voting allows candidates to appear on more than one party's ballot line, and then add their votes together from all the ballot lines they appear on. Minor parties like Working Families Party like this because it helps them overcome the "spoiler effect" that deters many people from voting third party. In first-past-the-post elections, if you vote third party in a multi-way race, you're essentially giving an advantage to your least favorite candidate, while backing someone who's unlikely to win the election. Ranked choice voting systems solve this problem as well, and are compatible with fusion voting. 

Fusion voting changes the game by allowing voters to send a message about the political direction they want a major party nominee to vote in, without withholding votes from that person. So in New York City, for example, voters could vote for Barack Obama on the Working Families Party's ballot line to send a message to Obama that they wanted him to pursue a more left-wing agenda. 

President Obama probably didn't care too much about that, but the further down the ballot you get, the more of an effect a third party can have on the major parties' agendas at that level of government. They never need to necessarily become electorally viable as a party on that particular ballot line to impact the direction of politics, but unlike with first-past-the-post systems, there's no real ceiling placed on their growth. 

What's interesting in Pennsylvania is that fusion voting is already legal in certain types of municipal elections like judicial elections and school board races (outside of Philadelphia) where candidates can file as both Democrats and Republicans, under certain circumstances. This kind of cross-filing is actually confusing and awful because it deprives voters of any of the party label shortcuts they might use to figure out what type of agenda the candidates will pursue in office. This cross-filing activity has mainly been limited to people cross-filing as both Democrats and Republicans though, in part because until recently, Pennsylvania has had particularly egregious requirements for minor political parties to get on the ballot. Signature requirements for minor parties were recently capped at 5,000, so it's possible we could see this start to change.

What else would need to happen to make fusion work?

One of the more interesting parts of Lai's piece is the discussion of PA ballot layout policies, and how they could work with fusion voting to bolster the status of minor parties in future elections.

Unlike in other states where fusion means the candidate would appear on the ballot multiple times, the current system in Pennsylvania simply places multiple party labels next to the candidate's name, e.g. "Christopher M. Rabb (Democratic Party/Working Families Party.)"

Because the state uses election results to classify political organizations into different levels — political party, minor political party, and political body — with different requirements for placing a candidate on the ballot, fusion would disrupt the system.

"Permitting the Working Families Party to cross-nominate Rabb as its candidate, and allowing his candidacy to be the determinant of whether the Working Families Party qualifies as a 'political party' for the next election cycle, would permit the Working Families Party to leverage Democratic Party support to benefit itself," the state wrote in a brief before the state Supreme Court [...]

The Working Families Party is willing to forgo the vote count for political party categorization, he said, and the state could also move to a ballot system where the candidate would be listed multiple times with different parties, the way other states do.

The question of what types of ballot layouts or voting systems are feasible is tied up in the boring but hugely consequential voting machine procurement conversation currently happening at the state and local level. The state is currently shopping for new voting machines, and at the end of the process, will only certify a few kinds for counties to buy. That becomes the official list that counties can shop off of.

So whether or not Philadelphia can ever have ranked choice voting, or the best version of fusion voting, or proportional representation, or whatever else we'd want to try, it's all going to come down to whether the machines Philadelphia and other counties are allowed to buy will have the technology to support alternative voting systems.

How would fusion impact Philly politics?

If minor parties aren't on the primary ballot at the same time as Democrats and Republicans choose their party nominees for the general election, then there's no real impact from fusion in primary elections, where most of the action is in Philadelphia municipal politics.

Working Families Party leaders in New York say fusion voting is not the primary reason for their political successes there, and that most of their electoral work has been concentrated on regular old Democratic primaries. The main benefit of fusion for them in New York is that it builds brand recognition and brand loyalty during general elections.

The main area where fusion voting could make local politics more interesting in Philadelphia would be in the two At-Large Council seats reserved for non-majority party candidates. The City Charter establishes 7 At-Large Council seats, but only allows a single party to nominate up to 5 At-Large candidates for those seats, leaving two up for grabs by another party, or unaffiliated candidate. As the second-most organized political party in Philadelphia, the Republicans have historically won those seats, but there's nothing technically stopping anyone from making an independent bid for them, or running with another minor party with a little brand recognition—like the Working Families Party.

People have been talking about this possibility for years, and there's more interest in it lately due to the national political mood and a bumper crop of insurgent candidate successes. Back in 2015, Andrew Stober made an unsuccessful independent bid for one of the seats, and so did Kristin Combs with the Green Party. If fusion were legalized, a single candidate could run on the Green Party ballot line and the Working Families Party ballot line, and the Philadelphia Party ballot line, and with any other party who would have them, and then add all the votes together. These hypothetical candidates would only need to win more votes than the Republicans, which on the surface might seem easy in a city with an 8-1 Democratic voter registration advantage, but it has yet to be done.

If fusion voting were legalized, the Working Families Party or another minor party could put the five Democratic primary winners on their party's ballot line (with those politicians' consent) and then add two more candidates for the non-majority At-Large seats and run a full 7-person candidate slate. Would this even be effective? Who knows! But we could find out soon if the PA Supreme Court rules in favor of Rep. Rabb and the Working Families Party before the 2019 elections.

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