Open primaries and ranked-choice voting offer reforms for our electoral system, but they have their limits. There’s an alternative that would achieve the goals of these better-known measures, while reinvigorating our moribund political parties — an equally vital task.

It’s called fusion voting.

To my knowledge, only one state — Vermont — has ever used the system fully, and it was abandoned long ago. Yet chronic discontent with our political parties, in Maine and the nation — and frustration over government action, and inaction — suggests it’s time for another look.

The basic concept is simple: Make it easy to form new political parties, and then reward them for their ability to attract voters through the power of their ideas.

The current system can’t do that. The Republican and Democratic parties, election after election, campaign primarily to preserve their power, or figure out how to get it back.

The results are, frankly, ugly. There’s almost no attention to what might benefit the state, and nation, and a constant focus on making the other side look bad.

Reformers attempt to overcome the hammerlock the two major parties have wielded for two centuries, and in Maine a few “independents” are usually on the ballot; twice they have won the governorship.

Yet individual candidates can’t force the major parties to change their ways, or offer new ideas. We haven’t seen a striking political idea in Maine in a generation, and no, rural broadband doesn’t count.

New parties can break the mold; there’s a lot of interest, but no structure to support them. Fusion voting can provide it.

Here’s how it would work: New parties would hold primaries and produce nominees for the general election. But unlike the current system in any state, candidates could appear as the nominee for more than one party, and votes they receive would be added together.

That’s how Vermont elected its first Democratic governor in a century — Phil Hoff, who in 1962 was outpolled by the Republican incumbent on the major party lines, but won because he was also nominated by two “minor” parties.

Unfortunately, the still-Republican legislature then abolished fusion voting. While Vermont candidates can still seek multiple nominations, they can accept only one.

That 1962 election is often credited with starting Vermont’s evolution from rock-ribbed Republican to the most progressive state in New England, with Bernie Sanders its best-known political product.

Today, fusion voting seems tailor-made for Maine’s discontent, where the “politically possible” is vanishingly small.

New parties could be built around small, but committed followings. The Green Party began in the 1980s, flourished awhile, then declined into insignificance for reasons we’ll discuss in a moment. It still counts nearly 30,000 members, a respectable total in a state of Maine’s size.

For awhile, the Libertarians were on the march, but they failed to field many candidates and lost ballot status.

The reasons for this disappointing record aren’t hard to find: Maine’s signature requirements for ballot access, especially for top-of-the-ticket races. Since only party members can sign petitions, Greens struggled to cross the threshold.

Signature totals appear reasonable, and are easily achieved for the two established parties, which draw on more than a third of the electorate. But not for small parties, and without candidates for governor and Congress, it’s almost impossible to rouse the voter interest necessary for eventual success.

To make fusion voting work, parties, once qualified, would only have to gain a set percentage of their own members to qualify. This is a reasonable addition; independents now draw on the entire electorate, which is how the Greens’ final gubernatorial candidate qualified, as a “Green Independent.”

Though it doesn’t benefit from “fusion,” Vermont’s current Progressive Party is an example of what can be achieved through consistent focus on ideas, not winning at all costs. With two state senators, seven representatives, and half the Burlington City Council, it has a pronounced effect on legislation, and wins elections in both urban and rural districts.

Voters do like more choices, and fusion voting can provide them. Let’s imagine, of Maine’s recent parties, some Democratic-Green nominees, or even a Republican-Green; there are a few.

A Libertarian-Republican candidate wouldn’t be in thrall to big business, and a Libertarian-Democrat would be skeptical of government direction of individual lives.

In practice, there are many ideas to organize around, from gender equity and social justice on the left, to deregulation and individual responsibility on the right.

No bills have yet been introduced to encourage fusion voting, but there’s interest. Compared with the media wars we detest each November, it might produce the lively, even heated debate necessary for democracy to thrive in the decades ahead.

Douglas Rooks has been a Maine editor, commentator, reporter and author since 1984. His new book is “First Franco: Albert Beliveau in Law, Politics and Love.” Visit tdouglasrooks.weebly.com or email: [email protected]


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