Responding to Lee Drutman’s “More Parties, Better Parties”

On fusion voting, party-centric reform, and how they interact with different voting methods

Marcus Ogren
24 min readJul 30, 2023

Lee Drutman recently released a new report, More Parties, Better Parties: The Case for Pro-Parties Democracy Reform. Here’s how he describes it in his blog post announcing it:

So, for the tl;dr junkies out there, here are the four key premises:

Premise 1: Political parties are the central institutions of modern representative democracy. We cannot have effective, robust democracy without effective, robust political parties. A healthy democracy depends on healthy parties.

Premise 2: A key reason democracy is failing in the United States is because our two-party system is failing. Our parties are not healthy or robust or effective institutions. Thus, democracy reform must focus on improving the health of our political parties.

Premise 3: The US two-party system no longer works because the parties are too polarized and do not face adequate competition in most places. One of our two parties has been captured by authoritarian extremists. In order to rehabilitate our party system, we need to make space for new and better political parties to emerge. The two-party system will not rehabilitate on its own.

Premise 4: Building more and better parties requires pro-parties democracy reforms. Specifically, it means supporting fusion voting and proportional representation, reforms that make more parties (that play a constructive role, as opposed to wasting votes or spoiling elections) possible, and restore vibrant competition and representation to our democracy.

I mostly agree with all of these premises. However, fusion voting may be unfamiliar to a lot of readers.

Fusion 101

Fusion voting, also known as fusion balloting or electoral fusion, means that multiple political parties can endorse the same candidate on a ballot. In a different blog post on fusion voting, Lee describes two variants of fusion voting: full fusion and aggregated fusion. Here are Lee’s example ballots for each:

Full fusion (Figure 1 here). Claire is endorsed by both the Democratic and Common Sense parties and has a separate ballot line for each.
Aggregated fusion (Figure 3 here). Claire receives only a single ballot line, and both parties endorsing her are listed below it.

Full fusion means that a candidate’s name is printed once for each party endorsing that candidate; aggregated fusion means that each candidate only gets one ballot line, but there may be multiple parties listed on it. Aggregated fusion has the obvious advantages of taking up less space on the ballot and not looking weird. What’s the case for full fusion? Here’s Lee’s take:

Full fusion is the real deal: each party gets its own ballot line, the votes are tallied separately by party and then added together to produce the final outcome. In full fusion, the minor party gets its votes counted and can demonstrate its strength

It goes without saying that the people who favor a multi-party democracy should prefer the traditional “full” fusion system over the dual labeling system. Only in the former does the minor party get a chance to build over time, translating their vote totals into meaningful power. The system itself encourages stronger parties to form.

We’ll have a lot more to say regarding fusion. But first, let’s get into Lee’s central thesis: That political parties are necessary and that we should work to strengthen them.

The importance of party-centric reform

Lee says that strong and healthy political parties are essential to democracy and that we need to distinguish party-centric reform from candidate-centric reform.

Many proposals focus primarily on candidates and, in particular, elevating independent and moderate candidates in the immediate term. These “candidate-centric” reforms include open primaries, top-two primaries, ranked-choice voting, and blanket primaries that send the top four or five finishers regardless of party to a ranked-choice general election. This category of “candidate-centric” reforms views political parties as obstacles to good governance and see the task of reform as finding a clever way around the perceived destructiveness of parties and especially partisanship. Though these candidate-centric reforms can sometimes work in targeted circumstances, this paper argues that such productive circumstances are limited. More broadly, this paper argues that in addition to having mixed and uncertain immediate-term effects, these candidate-centric reforms are unlikely to have sustainable long-term positive effects, because they do not address the core questions of the political party system.

Instead, this paper makes the case for pro-parties reforms both generally, and specifically for two powerful pro-parties reforms: fusion voting and proportional representation. Fusion voting allows for multiple parties to endorse the same candidate, encouraging new party formation. Proportional representation ends the single-member district, and makes it possible for multiple parties to win a proportional share of representation in larger, multi-member districts. The goal of these reforms — fusion in the short and medium terms, and proportional representation in the longer term — is to move us toward a thriving multiparty democracy in which healthy political parties perform the crucial functions essential to modern representative democracy, with less of the us-against-them, all-or-nothing, high-stakes uncertainty that sabotages self-governance.

Healthy parties aggregate long-term policy commitments among diverse groups. Healthy parties communicate the consequences of these policies to voters at scale. Healthy parties make elections meaningful and consequential by structuring choices. Healthy parties engage and mobilize voters. Healthy parties vet and support qualified candidates for public office. Healthy parties assemble governing majorities and broker compromises capable of solving public problems. These are all essential functions of modern democracy. No other organization can do all these things simultaneously or at scale.

The importance of political parties is something that Lee hammers home throughout the report; if I were to quote every passage to this effect I’d be directly quoting about a quarter of the entire text.

Reforms Lee isn’t impressed by

Lee lists several contemporary candidate-based reforms that he finds ineffective: Open primaries, Top-2 systems like California’s, Ranked Choice Voting (RCV; I usually use the more precise term “Instant Runoff Voting” for the single-winner version, but in this post I’ll use Lee’s terminology), and Alaska’s Top-4 system (that also uses RCV).

Let us now turn to the candidate-centric reforms: open primaries, single-winner ranked-choice voting, and Final Five Voting.

I label these as candidate-centric reforms because they focus on changing the candidates who run and win elections. They are very unlikely to change the structure of the party system. These reforms are designed to work within the existing party system, in the hope that they can elevate more moderate candidates and rebuild the political center by “changing the incentives” and encouraging candidates to appeal to “all voters” more “broadly.”

Underlying these reforms are flawed assumptions about the electorate. Indeed, one could be forgiven for looking only at polling and observing that about a third of Americans identify as “moderate” and that over 40 percent identify as “independent” and think there’s a latent political center that is not being represented in our party system. However, few dig beneath these survey responses. Fewer than half of self-identified “independents” also describe themselves as “moderates.” Many self-identified moderates are quite happy to vote for their preferred party because their perception of “moderate” is partisan.

Often voters are asked to declare whether they are liberal, moderate, or conservative. Moderate is the default category for respondents who do not think of themselves as either liberal or conservative. As one recent book on political ideology explained, “the moderate category seems less an ideological destination than a refuge for the innocent and the confused.”

Moderate does not mean centrist. It often means someone who doesn’t pay close attention to politics. Self-identified “moderate” voters are the least attentive to policy. This is likely because “moderates” in the voting population don’t have strong preferences. Typically, they don’t pay enough attention to politics to have well-defined ideological views.

This observation — that politically engaged voters at the political center are practically nonexistent — means that open primaries can’t be effective at reducing polarization. There aren’t a bunch of ideological moderates who are waiting in the wings as independents who will come to save us from polarization the moment we open up our primary system. As Lee describes in his separate report on primaries, primary voters are ideologically similar to general election voters (except perhaps more anti-establishment), so opening up primary elections to more voters won’t help.

What about Top-2 systems like California’s, where all the candidates participate in a single “primary”, regardless of partisan affiliation, and the top-two vote-getters advance? The first problem: As Lee notes, “Same-party general election contests occur roughly one-sixth of the time”. So, five-sixths of the time, Top-2 achieves nothing. This is partly due to having two finalists from different parties being the natural outcome when a district is divided roughly down the middle, and partly because “political elites in the dominant party are often effective at clearing the field for their side, leading to lower levels of same-party competition than a simple partisan-voter index would expect.”

And when you do get same-party contests in the general election? There’s a lot that can go wrong:

A same-party contest may not advance a moderate candidate. A Democratic district might advance two very liberal Democrats; a Republican district might advance two very conservative Republicans. Differences may be minimal, noticeable only to engaged citizens.

Without clear labels helping voters to distinguish moderate partisans from more extreme partisans, many voters (who don’t pay close attention) struggle to tell the difference. Indeed, there is considerable evidence suggesting that voters can’t tell the difference without significant additional information — far more than they would typically receive.

But here is where hyperpartisan polarization kicks in. Democrats and Republicans stereotype and smear each other with a broad brush. To many Republicans, there are no good Democrats. To many Democrats, there are simply no good Republicans. Even with additional information available, many voters might be unwilling to hear it or unreceptive to the mere idea of crossing party lines.

Thus, studies estimate that between 40 and 50 percent of “orphaned” voters in top-two elections will abstain from voting in a race when their only option is a candidate of the opposite party. That is, almost half of Democrats see choosing between two Republicans as a lose-lose choice (so why bother?). Almost half of Republicans feel the same way when it’s two Democrats.

What about RCV? Lee isn’t particularly impressed.

With extreme minor parties and center-oriented major parties, ranked-choice voting effectively allows noncentrist candidates to express dissenting views without affecting election outcomes. However, when major parties polarize, ranked-choice voting is less likely to benefit centrist minor-party candidates. The importance of elimination order and the requirement for significant first-preference votes work against small center-oriented candidates. In a divided political landscape, centrist candidates will struggle to secure enough first preferences to win.

Indeed, increasing evidence suggests that when RCV is attempting to bridge an enormous gap with a bimodal electoral distribution, centrist candidates do not do well. Once the electorate grows polarized, RCV ceases to be a potentially moderating force. Some even suggest it may actually increase the likelihood of candidates running to the extremes in many places, because in lopsided districts, RCV effectively insures them against vote-splitting by moderates. This assumes a centrist candidate even runs. As a candidate-centric reform, ranked-choice voting requires candidates to volunteer themselves to run a minor-party campaign almost certain to end in defeat.

These problems stem from RCV’s tabulation algorithm and the center squeeze. Unless a moderate can garner a large amount of first-choice support, it doesn’t matter how widely popular they are as a second choice. They’ll get eliminated before they could make it to the final round (where they’d have a big advantage. These issues are also present in Alaska’s “Final Four” system:

In the high-profile Senate race, Lisa Murkowski, one of the few remaining moderate Republicans, was re-elected, 53.7 percent to 46.3 percent over Kelly Tshibaka, the Trump-endorsed Republican, after transfers. In the first round, Murkowski got 43.4 percent, Tshibaka got 42.6 percent, and a third candidate, Democrat Pat Chesbro (a retired academic) got 10.4 percent. A fourth candidate who had advanced to the general election, far-right Republican Buzz Kelley, dropped out in September and endorsed Tshibaka.

Under a traditional Republican primary, Murkowski likely would have lost to Tshibaka. The Final Four system enabled her to advance to the general election without leaving the Republican Party or running independently. Had she run independently, she would have likely defeated Tshibaka, since Democrats did not mount a significant campaign. This mirrors her victories in 2010 (as a write-in candidate) and 2016, when Democrats also mounted no serious campaign. Notably, Murkowski is the only senator elected three times without a majority of first-preference votes in any of those elections.

It is possible that the new rules helped to save Lisa Murkowski’s career. But Murkowski survived to be re-elected only because Democrats effectively stood down and supported her. Murkowski raised $11.2 million in campaign contributions and spent $10.4 million. Chesbro raised $188,164 and spent $178,681 — which, in current campaign spending, is the equivalent of sneezing into the wind.

Lee also mentions the House race:

In the House race, Mary Peltola, a moderate Democrat, won in both the special election (to replace Don Young) and the general election rematch. In both elections, Republicans split their vote between Sarah Palin and Nick Begich, with Palin slightly edging out Begich. Had Alaska used the old system of separate partisan primaries, Palin and Peltola likely would have won their respective primaries, and Peltola would have won the general election, since Palin was widely disliked statewide. Begich (considered the slightly more moderate Republican) might have defeated Peltola head-to-head. But order of elimination matters.

In fact, the cast vote record shows that Begich definitely would have beaten Peltola head-to-head in the special election. But being a centrist was a losing strategy. Begich was overwhelmingly preferred over Palin by Peltola supporters and was overwhelmingly preferred over Peltola by Palin supporters. But RCV ignored these preferences, so Begich was eliminated in the first round. Running as a centrist was a losing strategy.

Alaska’s system and California’s top-2 system have a common issue: Most of the time, they behave the same as partisan primaries. They only behave significantly differently when they send two candidates from the same party to the general election (Top-2) or the final round of tabulation (RCV). And since RCV ignores all preferences except for first preferences until voters’ first choices have been eliminated, these methods do nothing to promote same-party final rounds. As I’ve written about in more depth in Fixing Final Five, this commonality means that we should not expect great changes from these reforms.

What about voting methods that don’t just mimic partisan primaries like RCV does? Lee mentions only one of them: Approval Voting.

Approval voting is sometimes pitched as a solution to this collapse of the center. But approval voting confuses the issue further because it relies on voters feeling equivocal about multiple candidates, something that no campaign wants to see. The game theory equilibrium of strategic campaign behavior under approval voting is that every voter should vote for just one candidate, which is what it frequently devolves to in practice. It changes nothing, but adds confusion.

For the most part, these claims are false. Approval voting does not “rely on voters feeling equivocal”. It is often strategically optimal to vote for multiple candidates (most obviously when one’s favorite has little chance of winning), and the papers he cites to show that “every voter should vote for just one candidate” don’t actually show this. There has not been a single race under Approval Voting in Fargo or St. Louis (with at least three candidates) in which every voter only voted for only one candidate; the claim that it happens “frequently” is absurd. (Readers who are interested in these claims are invited to read the two papers Lee cites to support them and my post on the Chicken Dilemma.)

Nonetheless, Lee has a point. As he clarifies in a footnote, what he’s really worried about is what candidates are telling their supporters to do — and Approval really does incentivize saying “offer no support for anyone other than me” much more than other voting methods do. And from Lee’s perspective, this is a very big problem. Lee’s goal is to build political parties — and having every candidate only look out for themself is antithetical to this.

What about STAR Voting and Condorcet methods? They address Lee’s problems with both RCV and Approval voting; they’re not vulnerable to the center squeeze, and telling voters to also support other candidates (at lower levels of support) is a reasonable campaign move under both voting methods. However, Lee makes no mention of them whatsoever. In his discussion of whether better single-winner voting methods can significantly reduce polarization, he ignores the most promising methods of all.

Building a Moderate Party

Lee generalizes from the ineffectiveness of RCV and primary reforms to conclude that candidate-based reforms, in general, cannot be transformative. However, even if he became convinced that STAR or Condorcet would elect far more moderates and would upend the existing incentives toward extremism, I think he’d still expect fusion voting to be a more impactful change. When we ask whether reforms incentive individual candidates towards moderation or elect winners who are closer to the political center, we’re judging these reforms based on a framework that Lee doesn’t think is all that important. Lee’s biggest criticism of these reforms is that they don’t build moderate parties.

Political parties are the most important source of organized power in modern democracy. Though many other sources of organized power obviously exist, politically they must interact with the political parties — usually as one group within a larger party coalition.

Pro-parties reform starts with this reality. Conceptually, pro-parties reform views the political system as a system, with parties as the central organizing institutions of this system. It says we need both better parties and a better party system.

This gives us a framework for evaluating any reform: Does it improve the party system? More specifically, does it encourage and facilitate healthy and effective parties that can perform their central role in modern representative democracy with honesty and integrity?

His biggest issue with Alaska’s system isn’t which candidates it elects, it’s that it isn’t spurring the creation of healthy and influential third parties:

It seems unlikely that new parties will emerge in Alaska, since aspiring candidates can grab the labels of the existing parties for free without having to build their own, thus further confusing voters as to the meanings of “Democrat” and “Republican.” Murkowski is not building the Moderate Party of Alaska.

(In Alaska, candidates are listed with their party registration — there is no requirement for them to have any support from their party whatsoever.)

Part of a sample ballot from Alaska

Imagine an alternate universe in which (a) Alaska’s system used STAR instead of RCV, and (b) fewer Democrats were willing to offer maximal support to Murkowski, such that she won under STAR Voting but would have lost under Plurality (or RCV). In this alternate universe, a candidate-centric reform really would have led to a more moderate outcome. But Lee’s argument would remain valid. Murkowski would still have no need to build the Moderate Party of Alaska.

And creating parties near the political center (or, at the very least, a single Moderate Party) is at the core of Lee’s vision. He argues that a Moderate Party wouldn’t just be a vehicle for aggregating political opinions, it would be the bedrock for new political identities:

Combatting belief polarization is arduous, and political parties play a significant role here. Political parties organize identities, helping individuals see themselves as part of a larger whole, and providing a shared identity to make sense of the world. Being a ‘moderate Democrat’ or ‘moderate Republican’ is one thing, but identifying oneself as part of a ‘Moderate Party’ with a distinct set of values and priorities is something entirely different. Moderate Democrats are just like Democrats but less so. Moderate Republicans are just like Republicans, but less so. Moderates without a party are just disorganized and powerless dots on a scatterplot of the electorate.

From this perspective, changing voting methods and letting anyone vote in the primary aren’t the important parts of Alaska’s reform — the important part is that little detail where the name of a party appears on the ballot next to a candidate’s name without the party’s consent. Alaska’s reform removed the ability of parties to inform voters via the ballot.

Issues with fusion voting

Lee thinks candidate-based reforms can’t meaningfully transform American politics. So what can? Lee offers two main answers: proportional representation and fusion voting. Of the two, Lee considers proportional representation to be vastly more impactful, but also more difficult to get enacted. But I agree with him, and I expect everyone reading this blog to agree with him (at least about the “vastly more impactful” part), so I won’t talk any more about it aside from noting that it’s more beneficial than every other reform discussed in this blog post put together.

On to fusion voting. I see several issues with Lee’s claim that adopting fusion voting is more effective at reducing polarization than any change in single-winner voting methods can be.

Issue #1: It’s utterly dependent on there being an influential moderate party.

Virtually all of Lee’s arguments for how fusion would help assume the existence of a Moderate Party. For example:

For moderates, a new party helps in several ways. First, its existence gives them a fresh way to signal their values. The current system allows only crude signaling: “D” or “R.” The new party gives currently homeless voters a new political identity. This matters, because identity is enormously important in modern politics. Much of the vitriol in American political discourse stems from the hardening of voters’ self-conception into bifurcated partisan identities. By strengthening the “moderate” identity, a new and much-needed centripetal force could emerge in American politics.

A party with 10 percent of the vote could significantly increase electoral competitiveness across the country. This would give it a strong claim on encouraging crosspartisan compromise governing. Importantly, a moderate party (or other party) will give voters a reason to show up in an election that otherwise might be less competitive, since the share of votes their preferred ballot party contributes to the winning total contributes to their party’s relative bargaining power.

But when discussing the difficulties associated with candidate-centric reforms, Lee describes how independents generally aren’t moderates and how “moderate” voters tend to be politically disengaged rather than have well-grounded moderate ideologies. Given the lack of actual moderates in the electorate, how could a Moderate Party possibly form? Who would be its members? I consider Lee’s answer to this question to be the least convincing part of the entire report:

The challenge in interpreting the popular labels of “moderate” and “independent” is that they are both default choices for people who don’t identify in the other two categories offered in the standard poll question. If you don’t think of yourself as “liberal” or “conservative,” you are then “moderate.” If you choose not to identify as a Democrat or a Republican, you are then “independent.” Independent and moderate, therefore, contain multitudes. This is partly why no party has yet united around either of these labels, despite their popularity. There is not enough shared ground among those who identify thusly to overcome the formidable fortress that the single-member district and the pro-two-parties jurisprudence have enacted to discourage challengers.

However, there might be enough for three or four new political parties to form to represent the diversity of perspectives and identities that the “independent” and “moderate” labels are picking up. But without political parties to organize these perspectives into coherent identities, voters will not organize on their own, and individual candidates are unlikely to emerge without parties. And without changes in the electoral system, none of these alternative perspectives will have an opportunity to organize.

To be fair, Lee also expects fusion voting to assist in the creation of moderate parties:

Fusion encourages parties to organize because it gives qualified parties a place on the ballot. This place on the ballot gives parties potential leverage, which they can use to bargain with major-party candidates. It is this feature that makes fusion powerfully pro-party. A ballot line is power, and organizations and money are drawn to power like graduate students to a free lunch.

I find these arguments to be quite weak. A major-party candidate wouldn’t offer very much to be listed next to a party that almost nobody has ever heard of, so the ballot line would only offer real power if the Moderate Party has a significant number of members. But the current structure of American politics leaves very few voters who would become engaged members of a Moderate Party, so this strategy is reliant on reshaping the identities of a large number of voters with nothing more than the ability to vote for the Democrat or the Republican by filling a bubble that says something other than “Democrat” or “Republican”.

I’m not saying it’s impossible for fusion voting to lead to the creation of a strong Moderate Party, but it does seem unlikely. And, unlike candidate-centric reforms, fusion voting is utterly reliant upon there being an influential moderate party for it to lead to depolarization. Even if we accept that fusion voting would do more to empower a hypothetical Moderate Party that constituted 10% of the electorate than (say) STAR Voting would, this doesn’t mean that fusion voting is more impactful under realistic expectations that say we probably won’t get such a Moderate Party.

Issue #2: Why aren’t New York’s politics more different from the rest of the country’s?

Here’s what Lee has to say about fusion voting in New York State:

New York, where fusion voting has remained legal since 1911, consistently features minor parties, often positioned at the ideological flanks. Examples include the Conservative and Working Families parties, which lean right and left, respectively, of Republicans and Democrats. Both play a credible, durable role in the political and policy landscape of the Empire State. Fusion voting yields a modest turnout increase in New York, with Democrats and Republicans gaining approximately 3 and 5 percentage points, respectively, when appearing on a second party line.

What about a New York Moderate Party? In 2022, Matt Castelli, a moderate Democrat challenging Elise Stefanik in the twenty-first district in New York, helped to establish a new Moderate Party of New York and ran as its candidate. Castelli lost, but the Moderate Party helped to make it a closer race. As Castelli explained in a 2023 post, “Our Moderate Democrat brand resonated. Despite zero political experience and name recognition, I outperformed most statewide Democrats on the ballot in NY-21 — including Governor Kathy Hochul. In a cycle that saw an 11+ point average shift to the right from 2020 Presidential results in Congressional districts across New York, the shift in NY-21 was the smallest. It’s easy to imagine a closer race if not for the terrible environment for Democrats in NY that mobilized Republican voters at Presidential election levels.”

I find this to be deeply unimpressive. If we were living in a universe in which fusion voting was a transformational reform, I would expect New York to actually have an influential Moderate Party — not just one guy running under a “Moderate Democrat” brand. When I googled “New York Moderate Party” (without quotes) I got a New York Post article titled “New ‘Moderate Party’ line in the works in scheme to aid NY Democrats” and a bunch of results for the New Jersey Moderate Party. This is not what a party with a meaningful moderating influence on New York politics looks like.

Issue #3: It’s similar in practice to RCV

When discussing RCV in Alaska, Lee said that “Murkowski survived to be re-elected only because Democrats effectively stood down and supported her.” Here’s what Lee has to say about moderates winning via fusion:

Most districts, however, are not two-party competitive. In such districts, fusion would create a different opportunity for a moderate party. Rather than playing kingmaker, a moderate party could effectively run its own candidate and then ask for the endorsement of the minority party. For example, in a district that is 60–40 Republican, a Democratic candidate will never win. But a Moderate Party candidate could. If Democrats could signal on the ballot that they endorsed Moderate Party candidates who could win, this would allow more moderate candidates to compete and sometimes win, thus making more districts competitive and increasing the number of moderates in Congress.

This requires the Democrats to “stand down” and not run their own candidate — much like they did for Murkowski in Alaska, but more extreme.

Moreover, RCV can mimic fusion voting in granting minor parties influence over major parties via endorsements. Here’s how Australia’s Animal Justice Party (AJP) uses how-to-vote (HTV) cards to gain influence:

The HTV cards represent political capital. The AJP can place one major party ahead of another on its HTV cards, and many of the AJP’s voters would follow that recommendation. Voters are not required to follow the recommendations on the HTV cards, but they often do. In marginal lower-house seats, this can sometimes be the deciding factor between the two major parties in determining the winner of that seat. The major parties want to secure enough lower-house seats to form government. So, the major parties offer the minor parties policy concessions in exchange for being placed in particular positions on the HTV cards. Major parties generally only make this exchange if the minor party also has party volunteers handing out HTV cards at polling booths on election day. The AJP had several hundred volunteers doing so this election, without whom the AJP would not have been able to secure this deal.

There were 10 lower-house seats that were considered marginal. The AJP contested all 10 of these seats. Since the AJP was then allowed to produce HTV cards corresponding to these 10 seats, this generated political capital. The AJP leveraged this political capital in discussions with the major parties. The AJP offered each party a higher place on the HTV in exchange for some high-priority animal policies. The AJP struck a deal with the Labor party — which is the party that also won the election and formed government.

This is very similar to negotiating over who to fuse with under fusion voting. To be fair, fusion has the advantage of not being reliant upon volunteers handing out “how-to-vote” cards. Still, by comparing endorsements to preference flows, RCV, like fusion, gives minor parties the ability to influence major ones. Similar results are achievable under other non-Plurality voting methods by making endorsements like “Give both Labor and the Animal Justice Party 5 stars” under STAR voting.

Fusing fusion with other reforms

Lee proposes a two-round system that is akin to California’s, but centered on fusion voting and empowering political parties:

Any party aiming to compete in [a single-winner] election will nominate a candidate through its preferred method. Independents who wish to run without a party can also enter if they can meet a signature requirement.

The initial round of voting occurs during a week in September, two months prior to the November election. This is a top-two election, to elevate the top two candidates to a general election. It is held open for a week to increase participation.

Between the two rounds, parties that participated in the first round but whose candidate did not advance have the option to cross-endorse one of the two remaining candidates, effectively fusing with one of the top two candidates. If they choose to do so, their ballot line will appear in the general election. They would have a month to decide. As with any fusion system, candidates must consent to such an endorsement.

Lee doesn’t state the voting method to be used in the first round, but it’s weakly implied to be Plurality. (I’d suggest Approval Voting here; it’s very simple, prevents vote-splitting and wasted votes, and, perhaps most importantly, shows the support for each of the parties that goes beyond being a voter’s first choice.)

It’s worth noting that aggregated fusion voting (in which each candidate only gets a single line on the ballot, but with multiple parties listed under their name) works in conjunction with just about any voting method. (There are issues with using full fusion voting; the ballots tend to be uncomfortably large and don’t give great data on how much of each candidate’s support came from each of the parties endorsing them.)

Moreover, the combination of aggregated fusion and expressive voting methods allows parties to inform much better than they can with fusion voting under Plurality voting. Here’s my proposal for a two-round system using STAR ballots; I’ll call it Final Five-STAR Fusion:

Candidates can get on the ballot for the first round by being nominated by a political party (parties can nominate candidates however they want) or by collecting signatures; getting on this ballot is intended to be very easy. The top five candidates, as determined by Score Cascading Vote, would advance to the second round. (It would be fine to use Plurality instead here for simplicity, however.)

The second election would use STAR Voting and aggregated fusion. But it wouldn’t be standard aggregated fusion — instead, the names of political parties would appear next to numbers that indicate what score that party thinks you should give the candidate. And parties wouldn’t be limited to endorsing only one candidate in this manner — they could endorse as many as they like.

A possible ballot for a Final Five-STAR Fusion

As with Lee’s proposal, candidates would have to consent to such an endorsement. (For the sake of ballot space, they would also be limited in how many endorsements they could accept.)

Final Five-STAR Fusion has several advantages over Lee’s proposal. First, it’s not reliant upon moderate voters or on the emergence of a Moderate Party. Partisan Democrats and partisan Republicans will still give 1s and 2s to moderate candidates on the other side. This yields an incentive for moderation even in the complete absence of moderate voters (or a party that they might call home). Second, Final Five-STAR Fusion lets parties communicate more expressively. They wouldn’t just be deciding on a single candidate to support; they’ll be deciding on their collective opinions of all the candidates and giving voters much more nuanced information. Third, Lee’s proposal requires smaller parties to choose between running their own candidate and endorsing a more viable candidate in the first round; Final Five-STAR Fusion lets them do both. And then there are all the benefits of STAR Voting over Plurality with a top-two runoff: voters can show support for as many candidates as they like (along with their parties!), the largest faction won’t be at risk of getting locked out of the final round due to vote-splitting, etc.

But perhaps the most interesting feature of Final Five-STAR Fusion is that it encourages less rigid political identities. Instead of thinking “I’m a Democrat” or “I’m a member of the Moderate Party”, a voter might think, “I’m mostly a Democrat, but I give a lot of weight to the endorsements of the Green and Moderate parties as well.”


I’d like to thank Lee for writing another in-depth report that gave me a lot to think about. Much of my thinking about voting methods has focused on the candidate-centric mindset. When I wrote about Alaska’s system in Fixing Final Five, I didn’t even mention the issue of party labels becoming meaningless if any candidate can claim them. But I think the question, “How will this affect political parties?” is a vital question to ask of any proposed reform. Political parties are central elements of a healthy democracy and we ignore their importance at our peril.

However, I disagree with Lee’s framing of a binary choice between candidate-centric and pro-parties reform, and I don’t think a reform necessarily has to focus on political parties in order to be effective. There are multiple avenues to saving America from the two-party doom loop. Ending the two-party system (by having more influential parties, and not by weakening existing parties) and incentivizing candidates to move toward the center are two of them, and these approaches are mutually compatible. We should adopt structural reforms to our electoral system that limit polarization, and I agree with Lee that more parties, and healthy parties, are important goals.