Favorable Supreme Court Decision Would BreakTwo-Party Stranglehold on Elections

Ross Perot's nationally renowned election bids to shake up the two-party system may be falling short, but the U.S. Supreme Court soon may give a helping hand to such third-party candidates who want to break the stranglehold Democrats and Republicans have on U.S. politics. The high court this week is hearing a historic voting rights case -- deciding whether a state can prohibit a candidate from being nominated in an election by more than one party for the same office (McKenna v. Twin Cities New Party). This practice, dubbed "fusion," was widely barred in the 1800s; the practice currently is against the law in 40 states and the District of Columbia, and except for the state of New York, it's seldom used. However, the practice is resurfacing as a solution to giving minor parties more power. The case before the court was brought by the New Party, a new progressive political organization that is running local candidates for office in a dozen states. In Minnesota, the Twin Cities Area New Party in 1994 nominated Andy Dawkins, the incumbent Democratic-Farm-Labor representative in the state legislature, only to be blocked by the secretary of state's office. Winning on appeal in the 8th Circuit, it now is up to the Supreme Court to determine if the state restriction infringed upon the New Party's First Amendment rights to political association. "This case has the potential to open up American politics to a range of choice and values-based politics of a sort not seen before in this century," said Joel Rogers, the chair of the New Party's interim executive council and a professor of law, sociology and political science at UW-Madison.And for progressives in particular -- who are mobilizing support at the grassroots city council and school board levels -- this may open the door to building a more powerful national force.Fusion once was a common political tactic, banned only after the 19th century worker-farmer alliance (the Populists) moved into the limelight of American politics. In order to reduce the threat that Populist farmers and Democratic workers might cooperate, Republican-dominated state legislatures banned fusion in most states after the election of 1896. "We don't mind fighting you one at a time," said a Minnesota Republican in 1897, "but the combination we detest." Proponents of fusion voting argue that it is a key tool for independent parties that don't want to "spoil" elections or run marginal candidates. "Right now, minor parties generally have two options in high level races -- they can either run a candidate who likely has no chance of winning and may even help elect the worst of the two major candidates, or they can sit out the race. "Fusion voting would give minor parties a third option: to cross-endorse a progressive major party candidate on its own ballot line, allowing supporters to express their values while also casting a vote that counts," said New Party Executive Director Dan Cantor. Usually, Democrats run on the liberal party line and Republicans on the conservative ticket. As widely cited, occasionally it is the minor-party line that counts. For instance, in 1980, Jimmy Carter received more Democratic votes than Ronald Reagan's Republican votes in New York. But the conservative party votes put Reagan over the top and gave him New York.Not surprising, the most prominent progressives who have attempted White House runs agree that fusion would be a critical tool. "Fusion will redeem an historic American voting right, and energize an "inside-outside" political strategy for progressive forces," Rev. Jesse Jackson said in a statement.Consumer crusader and former California candidate Ralph Nader agrees that a favorable ruling would be a step toward breaking the grip that "the two parties and their Wall Street contributors currently have on American politics." Should the court rule in favor of the New Party, the most immediate effects are likely to be felt at home. Over the last four years, New Party-backed candidates have won 126 of 185 races for school, city, county and state offices. New Party chapters also have backed campaign finance reform and living wage job initiatives, and have championed for increased school funding."If a ruling comes down in our favor, we'll be looking to build statewide labor and community-based political parties that would cross-endorse candidates in the 1998 state legislative and Congressional races on a platform of `living wages,' starting with equality for children and radical campaign finance reform," said the New Party's Cantor.

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