Think the bumper crop of third-party candidates for Oregon governor is making this year's election interesting?
Just wait 'til 2008, when a new union-backed third party, the Oregon Working Families Party, is aiming to make an electoral splash. The party will hold its founding convention in late August to firm up its structure and direction.
The convention builds on a recent breakthrough for unions, the low-income community group ACORN and other backers of the party. Supporters gathered 28,000 signatures to win state certification June 27 as a new party, which means it can run candidates and appear on voter registration forms (see "Laboring to Birth a New Party," WW, Jan. 4, 2006).
But before they run candidates, organizers want to end the "spoiler" factor that sinks most other third-party efforts. Third-party candidates often lose out because voters fear opting for an alternative that would help elect a candidate they dislike in either of the two major parties. To get around that, Working Families wants to return to the "fusion" voting system that helped elect a populist Oregon governor, Sylvester Pennoyer, at the end of the 19th century. Under fusion, each party can use its ballot line to run its own candidates, or endorse those of another party.
For example, Candidate X could run as a Democrat but also get the Working Families Party's backing in its ballot spot. If Candidate X got 40 percent on the Democratic line and 11 percent on the Working Families line, the candidate would win a total of 51 percent, and the Working Families Party could get Candidate X's attention on its issues.
Such a system was the norm until the Republicans and Democrats united to outlaw it state by state in the early 1900s.
This spring, Oregon Working Families Party founders Tim Nesbitt and Barbara Dudley met with Libertarian Party president Richard Burke and agreed to ally behind a fusion bill in the 2007 Oregon Legislature. Burke backed a similar bill in 2005 that passed the House 49-2 only to be quashed in the Senate by Nesbitt, then head of the Oregon AFL-CIO and more recently hired as a consultant for the re-election of Gov. Ted Kulongoski, a Democrat.
Nesbitt says now that fusion could work for progressives—if they have a well-organized party like Working Families to use its full potential. He and other founders envision the party focusing only on what most affects working people, like affordable health care, tax equity, family-wage jobs and school funding. On hot-button social issues, the party would take no position. Nesbitt says that neutrality would let candidates endorsed by Working Families know exactly how many voters backed them for supporting an economically populist agenda; in addition, it could attract blue-collar social conservatives who've gone Republican over "God, guns and gays."
"To counter the politics of diversion, you need a politics of focus," Nesbitt says.
And why would legislative Republicans and Democrats support fusion? Because each party has insecure flanks: For the GOP, it's right-to-lifers and libertarians. For the Ds, it's dissatisfied Greens and unionists.
Restoring fusion, ironically, could help retain incumbent major-party candidates. It also could lead to the formation of more third parties, says political consultant Kari Chisholm, founder of the progressive blog BlueOregon.
Chisholm thinks Working Families could appeal to younger voters who are anti-corporate and less party-loyal. But other groups could also form parties, like an anti-tax or anti-abortion party, if fusion made them viable.
"We may get to a place where there's a dozen parties or more," Chisholm says. "And that would give voters more information than they currently get."
If legislators balk at a fusion bill, Working Families would move forward with a ballot initiative in '08, which has already been approved for circulation.
Ten states offer some form of fusion voting.
Oregon is the fourth state to form a Working Families Party, along with New York, Delaware and South Carolina. Massachusetts voters will decide on fusion in a ballot measure this November. And some Washington labor leaders are weighing the chances of getting an initiative on the ballot there in 2007.