Shaking up the ballot

Is it possible to rewrite the rules of Massachusetts politics? A group of progressives thinks so, and they’re putting it to a vote this fall.
By DAVID S. BERNSTEIN  |  June 28, 2006

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Massachusetts liberals — tired of being taken for granted by the entrenched, centrist, business-friendly, mainstream machine of Democratic politics — have a new plan for making themselves heard. They are sponsoring a ballot initiative to introduce “fusion voting” to the Bay State. And while it might not revolutionize state politics, it will seriously redefine the game.

If they succeed, it will be with the help of a variety of frustrated voters — including, say, tax-rollback advocates and same-sex-marriage opponents — who want their own, quite different messages heard.

While such groups have wailed loudly in print, on talk radio, and on the State House steps about their unresponsive pols, it’s a quieter group of progressives who are planning to actually do something about it. They are frustrated with seeing the state legislature wimp out on health care by choosing a provider-friendly alternative to true universal coverage; on the minimum wage by adopting a business-friendly compromise figure; on labor by allowing the Romney administration to cut civil-service jobs; on education; on municipal funding; on drug treatment; on criminal-justice policy; and on and on.

Their proposal to reshape Massachusetts politics will appear on the November ballot, as a citizens’ initiative to introduce “fusion voting” to Massachusetts. By submitting 20,000 new signatures to the state last week — twice the number required — supporters appear to have cleared the final hurdle to bringing the proposal before the public.

To hear supporters describe it, fusion voting could completely reconfigure politics in this state — not necessarily by changing the players on Beacon Hill, but by making the pols pay attention to a whole different set of people and issues.

Tallying up
Fusion voting does two things: it allows a candidate to be listed by more than one political party on a ballot, and it tallies the votes together. This simple reform would, in theory, allow third parties to flourish by letting them cross-nominate major-party candidates. Voters could send a message by adding to the minor party’s vote count, while still helping the major candidate get elected — rather than splitting the ticket.

Take, for example, two recent Somerville-area electees: State Representative Carl Sciortino and State Senator Pat Jehlen. Progressives believe their votes propelled both to victory — but neither winner really knows who they have to thank for the votes. Liberals? Moderates? Gay-rights activists? Educators? “My great frustration is the secret ballot,” says Judy Meredith, a long-time progressive activist and lobbyist who now runs the Public Policy Institute in Boston. “It stands in the way of proving that your constituency came out.”

Had progressives had a choice to vote for Sciortino and Jehlen on a progressive-party line — such as the Working Families Party that Meredith and others are currently creating — they could have answered her question, at least partially. They also would have given Beacon Hill leadership a sense of their numbers, and a taste of their power at the polls.

Which is the whole idea: you don’t need to scratch the surface very hard to learn that the same folks, and the same money, are behind both the fusion-voting initiative and the new Working Families Party. It’s a two-step plan for labor unions and community activists to push their issues.

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A placeholder party: How fusion voting would work.  By David S. Bernstein

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