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.
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.
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.
Only a handful of states currently allow fusion voting, and only in New York is it used to any serious effect. Yet political observers in that state say that fusion voting has allowed third parties to thrive and, therefore, to affect policy.
“You get elected officials who pay more attention to us and our issues,” says Karen Scharff, executive director of Citizen Action of New York and a board member of that state’s Working Families Party, which has been on the ballot since 1998. “We worked for the same goals before, but have had more success since fusion balloting.”
In fact, some of those third parties — most notably the Conservative Party on the right and the Working Families Party on the left — have become so important in New York State that major-party candidates ignore them at their peril. One recent casualty was former Massachusetts governor William Weld, whose run for governor of New York ended earlier this month. Weld’s moderate views on social issues, including abortion and gay marriage, led the Conservative Party to announce it would not put him on their ballot line if he won the Republican nomination for governor. The few percentage points that the Conservative Party delivers are critical to any Republican’s chances in a statewide New York election, and Weld’s odds of general-election victory immediately weakened. That, among other problems, pushed Republicans to endorse hard-line conservative John Faso at their state convention, and Weld quit the race.
Here in Massachusetts, progressives like Meredith, along with labor unions and minority activists, want to hold that kind of sway over an entrenched Democratic Party, which they believe gives greater consideration to corporate lobbyists’ interests than to those of the working poor.
But getting a majority of voters to mark “Yes” on the ballot initiative is an uphill climb, according to most political observers.