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Will the Utah Senate Race Break the Partisan Doom Loop?

Evan McMullin and Utah Democrats are reviving an old American tradition.
May 11, 2022
Will the Utah Senate Race Break the Partisan Doom Loop?
Evan McMullin talks to students at the University of Utah's Hinckley institute on November 2, 2016 in Salt Lake City, Utah (Photo credit should read GEORGE FREY/AFP via Getty Images)

In late April, the Utah Democratic Party declined to endorse its own candidate against incumbent Republican Senator Mike Lee. Instead, the party rallied behind independent candidate Evan McMullin, the former Republican and vocal Trump critic who garnered nearly a quarter of Utah’s presidential vote in 2016. Despite cross-ideological agreement on a host of issues, cross-partisan coalitions like this one are almost unheard of in American politics. Americans are often forced to vote Republican or Democrat, and when there is an independent or minor party candidate, they’re typically not competitive—or worse, a spoiler.

It wasn’t always this way. For much of American history, minor political parties played prominent roles in electoral politics. It’s not that Americans have become more satisfied with their two main options; nearly two-thirds of Americans today would welcome alternatives to the Democratic and Republican parties. Instead, despite the will of the voters, changes to electoral rules over time have snuffed-out the ability of alternatives to compete, including by outlawing “fusion voting.”

Until the late 1800s, minor parties throughout the country would frequently partner or “fuse” with major parties, endorsing the same candidate to build a majority coalition. In casting a ballot for that candidate, voters would specify which of the endorsing parties they supported. This system allowed voters to support candidates with a realistic chance of winning, while also highlighting to their candidate (and political class writ large) their support for the minor party platform. Minor parties could leverage their endorsements to influence the policy positions of major party candidates, particularly on issues neglected by both major parties. For example, through the late 1880s, the Democratic and Republican parties had largely ignored the effects of industrialization and monopolization on small businesses, laborers, and family farmers. Widespread frustration with the major parties gave birth to the People’s party, which brought, among other issues, collective bargaining, a shortened workweek, and increased railroad regulation into the mainstream.

Fusion voting would seem to have particular promise today. Political scientists assess that America has the world’s strictest two-party democracy, so it’s no surprise that there is widespread frustration with our only two options. Both major parties are politically under water, with minority favorability and majority unfavorability.

This rigid two-party system hasn’t just soured our relationships with our major parties, but also our relationships with each other. The absence of any serious alternatives has entrenched a binary structure of political conflict in which compromise is betrayal and animosity is endemic and self-reinforcing. When the only alternative is casting a vote for the other team, even self-identified moderates often tolerate and rationalize extremism in their own ranks. This is typical in two-party systems, in which affective polarization—deep dislike and distrust of “the other side”—appears to be worse than in more fluid, multi-party systems.

Imagine, instead, a new minor party that fused with major party candidates based on their commitment to the rule of law and fair elections, and their rejection of political extremism and violence. A Democratic voter leery of the party’s leftward turn on various issues, but nonetheless appalled by the Republican party’s defense of January 6, could support a center-right candidate who rejects the Big Lie without having to vote Republican. And a Republican voter likewise troubled by her party’s extremism could support a center-left candidate without having to vote Democratic. Analysts of fusion voting cite various examples of its salutary effects. But perhaps none is as compelling as the permission-slip it provides to vote across partisan lines without sacrificing one’s partisan identity.

Why isn’t this happening today? Fusion is still barred by statute in all but a few states, ensuring that ballots only show one party endorsement per candidate. Fusion’s increasingly prominent role in the late 19th century produced a swell of legislative backlash from state officials fearing for their political survival, lest their opponents fuse their way to victory. One lawmaker infamously admitted the prevailing sentiment: “We can whip them single-handed, but don’t intend to fight all creation.”

Where fusion is permitted, minor parties can play a serious, sometimes decisive, role in electoral politics. In New York, Franklin Roosevelt, John Kennedy, and Ronald Reagan each relied on minor party fusion support to secure the state’s electoral college votes. One recent study reviewing 60 years of congressional elections in New York concluded that “fusing with minor parties improves major-party candidates’ electoral performance by substantial—and, occasionally, electorally decisive—amounts.” In 1994, the Conservative Party’s 328,000 fusion votes for George Pataki made him the first Republican to win the governorship in twenty years. Today, the Conservative party, and other minor parties like the Working Families party, continue to wield substantial influence in the Empire State. In Connecticut’s 2010 gubernatorial election, the Working Families party delivered 26,000 votes to Dannel Malloy, who defeated Tom Foley by a margin of less than 7,000 votes. In the midst of the Tea Party wave, Connecticut voters were able to choose their preferred candidate while also sending a clear message of dissatisfaction to the Democratic party.

Some skeptics of fusion voting question the impact of minor party endorsements on the ballot and worry that fusion hinders the development of fully independent minor parties. Yet most opposition to fusion arises from major party officials, whose personal and institutional stake in minimizing minor party power is hard to ignore. It’s possible that fusion voting could stunt the independence of certain minor parties, but the fully independent minor parties under current rules (Green, Libertarian) are either electorally irrelevant or playing spoiler. It’s hard to see how fusion could make things worse. As with any electoral reform, fusion voting is no panacea for the myriad pathologies of our politics, and in many cases it likely would not give minor parties a direct seat at the legislative table. But it would be a tool to forge more complex electoral coalitions that better reflect a diverse electorate.

Fusion voting is a relatively easy—though by no means the only—way to weaken the two-party duopoly, give Americans more choices, and encourage politicians to build broader political coalitions. If we’re to avert a democratic crisis, we desperately need these changes. Embracing our rich (and in some places, ongoing) tradition of fusion voting is a good place to start.

McMullin will appear on the ballot this November as an independent candidate, notwithstanding the support of the state’s Democratic Party and the endorsement of the nascent United Utah party. Because Utah, like dozens of other states, bans formal fusion voting, McMullin’s informal coalition is the closest legal alternative. (Full disclosure: McMullin formerly served as an adviser to Protect Democracy, where I work.) Yet his unique circumstances—a high-profile independent candidate with statewide recognition and a major party willing to remove itself from a contested election—are unlikely to repeat themselves.

McMullin’s race may serve as another proof-of-concept for fusion voting, if not a blueprint others can readily follow. Legalizing fusion voting and allowing candidates to appear on the ballot as the nominee for more than one party could make cross-ideological, majority coalitions the norm rather than the exception. It would give voters the expanded choices they clearly want without forcing them to abandon their partisan identities, and empower them with a more effective way to express their values at the ballot box. And it would give our democracy what it needs: a release valve from escalating extremism and spiraling polarization.

Beau Tremitiere

Beau Tremitiere is a counsel at Protect Democracy, where he focuses on advocacy, litigation, and electoral reform to counter political extremism and authoritarianism.