How to have minor parties that are more than spoilers

David Morris // Published November 30, 2008 in Minneapolis Star Tribune
Minnesota went from election night to recount watch so quickly that we had little time to reflect on the implications of one of our mostly hotly contested races.

In the Sixth Congressional District, Michele Bachmann beat Elwyn Tinklenberg by 2 percent. The Independence Party candidate garnered 10 percent of the vote. That much has been widely reported.

Less widely known is that the Independence Party actually endorsed Tinklenberg at its convention. Its members believed that Tinklenberg best represented the party's platform and values. But Minnesota law doesn't permit multiple parties to nominate the same candidate. The Independence Party could be on the ballot only by nominating someone less acceptable than Tinklenberg, a move that effectively defeated its preferred candidate.

A little more than a hundred years ago, Minnesota and the rest of the nation allowed third parties to grow without simply being spoilers. The process is called fusion politics. Third parties can ally (fuse) themselves with major parties (or vice versa). But in the 1880s and 1890s third parties like the People's Party and the Populist Party allied with the Democratic Party and won a number of elections. Which led the minority Republican Party, when it controlled state legislatures, to pass laws that banned fusion. One Republican Minnesota legislator was clear about his party's goal: "We don't propose to allow the Democrats to make allies of the Populists, Prohibitionists, or any other party, and get up combination tickets against us. We can whip them single-handed, but don't intend to fight all creation."

By 1907, fusion had been banned in 18 states. Today, it is legal in only seven states: Connecticut, Delaware, Idaho, Mississippi, New York, South Carolina and Vermont.

In 1994, it returned to the national spotlight when Andy Dawkins ran unopposed for the Minnesota House of Representatives in the Democratic primary but also accepted the endorsement of the fledgling New Party. Minnesota's secretary of state sued. The New Party argued that Minnesota's ban on fusion voting interfered with its members' constitutional right to free speech. The U.S. Supreme Court disagreed. In 1997, the court ruled upheld Minnesota's right to forcibly maintain its two-party monopoly.

The New Party disappeared, but other parties arose and survived in Minnesota. One result is that the winners in statewide and federal elections are elected with fewer than 50 percent of the votes. Since 1994, no gubernatorial candidate has won a majority of the vote. When this year's results are complete, two congressional seats and one Senate seat will have been won by a minority candidate. Except for the unique candidacy of Jesse Ventura, third parties in Minnesota now only play the role of spoilers.

While fusion has fallen out of the spotlight, another voting innovation has gained traction: instant-runoff, or ranked-choice, voting. In this process, voters assign a numerical rank to each candidate. After the election the candidate with the fewest first-place votes is eliminated and his or her second-place votes are redistributed. The process continues until only two candidates remain and one is declared the winner by majority vote. Such voting is now in effect in several cities. In 2006, Minneapolis voters overwhelmingly endorsed the process, but a lawsuit may stall its implementation.

Instant runoff is an important and useful innovation. Based on the country's limited experience, it changes the tone of campaigns for the better because candidates are angling to be not only the first choice of their backers but also the second choice of someone else's. Wider political diversity should result when voters have second and third choices.

Instant runoff and fusion address different ends. Instant runoff focuses on the candidate. Its goal is to ensure that the winner has gained a majority of the votes. Fusion's goal is to build political parties. By allowing minor parties to ally with major parties, it enables them to gain an influence on the major party similar to the influence minor parties exercise in European parliaments where parties that gain more than a certain percentage of the vote earn seats based on the proportion of the vote they win. Political parties are now in disrepute, but they can serve an important and enduring role when they develop a coherent and stable value-based program that offers voters a different framework for policymaking.

Instant runoff should be widely implemented. But we should not ignore the benefits that come from having third parties whose members can nominate the candidate who best represents a party's values and, by doing so, can gain a maturity and influence that will never come if they can only play the role of spoiler.

David Morris is vice president of the Institute for Local Self-Reliance, based in Minneapolis and Washington, D.C.