There are quite a few definitions out there for political parties. They are, after all, fairly strange creatures that look quite different depending on where you stand. They often include voters, militants, leaders, elected officials, and institutions; at times they are campaign machines, at other they are part of the engine of government and policy making. They are complicated beasts at the center of democratic institutions.
My favorite definition, if not most precise in academic terms, comes from Benjamin Disraeli, a Victorian British Prime Minister. In his words, “party is organized opinion:” political parties are how we turn complex political debates into something that can be turned into government policy.
This definition came to mind following some recent debates around election laws in Connecticut. Election rules play a vital role in this process of turning opinion into policy by letting voters choose who is going to represent them in our institutions. They also play a significant role in shaping how political parties behave within the political system, and how they organize themselves to set a policy agenda.
Ideally, we would like election laws to create incentives for politicians to organize effective governing coalitions. Connecticut happens to have a quite elegant system that pushes parties in this direction.
A good election law should focus on giving voters real choices that reflect their priorities. It should also push politicians both to try to bring voters to their side and to work with other like-minded candidates to turn those priorities into legislation. Ideally, this would mean having several platforms to choose from and several political parties, each running on a set of ideas. In Connecticut, our single-member districts mean that we can rarely get more than two parties in the legislature. We can, however, under our system of fusion voting, have candidates run on more than one party ballot line, each representing a different constituency and platform.
This, at its core, is how our fusion voting system works: it encourages candidates to seek more support and build coalitions, not to hide their unpopular opinions.
With fusion, voters do not just pick a candidate, but choose what party platform they prefer. People running for office have to work to attract the support from parties with policy demands and constituencies, and voters can send a clear message not just who they prefer, but why. Each vote has a clear ask. It is (quite) simple, effective, and it pushes leaders to build governing majorities, not win popularity contests.
Fusion voting, of course, is far from perfect, and Connecticut’s version has some significant gaps. It is really hard for a third party to qualify to appear on the ballot, despite past successes of some minor parties like my own Working Families. Our public campaign finance system puts third-party candidates at a significant disadvantage. Fusion is woefully underused at the local level, precisely because it is so hard to get on the ballot line. Still, with all its shortcomings, this is a system that has been able to push candidates to offer more detailed platforms, not less, and act upon them once elected.
At the end of the day, we want an electoral system that pushes candidates to try to find like-minded people that are willing to work with them to pass legislation that represents their constituents. Let’s look for policy reforms to expand and strengthen fusion voting and push Connecticut in this direction.