Fusion voting step in right direction

Before the Oregon Legislature ended its session at the end of last month, it passed an electoral reform bill that will only help make our state a little more democratic. State senators who voted for and against the bill acknowledged there are parts of it they would like to change, but they are in a better position to keep improving ballot access now that Senate Bill 326 passed. Governor Ted Kulongoski should promptly sign it into law.

The bill does two things. It repeals a 2005 law that disqualified any person who voted in a primary election from signing a petition to put an unaffiliated candidate on the ballot. That law needlessly restricted both a voter’s right to vote for whom they choose and a citizen’s right to run for public office without being a member of one of two political parties.

The other piece of the bill allows a limited form of fusion voting, a system by which candidates can list the endorsements of multiple parties on the ballot.

Fusion voting allows a candidate to show that while he is a Republican, he has also been endorsed by the Constitution Party, for example. Democrats might also be endorsed by the Green or Working Families parties. It allows a candidate to show more precisely what kind of a Democrat or Republican she is, and lends minor parties a shred of ballot access and influence in political discourse.

Fusion voting was legal in Oregon and much of the country in the 19th century, and the Unity Party, Oregon’s branch of the Populist Party, often fused with the Democrats in electing populists to office. The law was later changed and the kind of candidates major parties were endorsing changed with it.

In 1997, the Supreme Court said states could do away with fusion voting. Arkansas and South Dakota did just that. Though its use has waned during the past 100 years, New York state has always used it. Today, Delaware, Connecticut, South Carolina and Vermont all have some form of fusion voting, according to the Capitol Hill newspaper Roll Call.

In some of these states, candidates get separate lines on the ballot for each party that has endorsed them. The votes from each line are later added together and given to the same candidate. In Oregon, at least for now, each candidate would get only one line with the names of multiple parties.

State Rep. Jefferson Smith (D-Portland) told the Oregonian that fusion voting gives minor parties a chance to meaningfully participate without running a candidate who will be labeled a “spoiler.” Democratic Party of Oregon Executive Director Trent Luntz, unsurprisingly, painted it as a way for small groups of activists at minor party nominating conventions to buttonhole candidates and force concessions on a particular issue.

The sad part is that Luntz may be right, and such tactics may be as yet the most effective method those dedicated individuals have of making a major party hear their concerns.

There are probably more democratic reforms that could be made, from separate ballot lines to instant runoff voting, which allows everyone to vote their conscience the first time and political expediency second. But right now Oregon has progressed enough to be able to protect the worthy components of this baby step toward reform. The governor should sign the bill and make our election system a little more open than it is now.

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