Michael Bloomberg, the Democrat-turned-Republican who swore off the concept of party membership altogether in the summer of 2007, is now set to seek re-election this fall as the official candidate of the Republican Party. He will also run as the standard-bearer of the Independence Party and, if he gets his way, the Working Families Party.
Should the mayor pull off this trifecta, it would be, roughly speaking, the political equivalent of serving simultaneously as the president of the Red Sox, Yankees and Mets fan clubs. These are not groups that see the world the same way—not even close.
Of course, the one thing Mr. Bloomberg will not be identified as on the ballot is the one thing he actually is: an "unaffiliated" voter, officially unaligned with any political party—a distinction the mayor shares with more than 700,000 of his fellow New York City residents.
Mr. Bloomberg's likely fall opponent, city Comptroller Bill Thompson, is accusing the mayor of "party affiliation by political expediency," a charge that is absolutely true. From the standpoint of practical politics, though, Mr. Bloomberg really has no choice: New York's archaic ballot rules and procedures reward candidates who align themselves with as many political parties as they can, philosophical coherence be damned. And they punish candidates who don't.
Mr. Thompson himself knows a thing or two about this: right now, he's likely to run as the Democratic Party's candidate, but he also wants his name at the top of the Working Families column, and he previously made inquiries into the Independence line.
In most states, this kind of cross-endorsing between political parties is forbidden by law. And of the few that actually allow it, none take it as seriously as New York, where electoral fusion seems to be regarded as a permanent, almost sacred, institution.
The system has its roots in the Tammany era, when the city's various reform parties found it impossible to topple the Democratic machine individually. But if they could team up when it was strategically beneficial—running common candidates for the most important offices, and their own slates for down-ballot slots – they'd have a chance. (Of course, the Tammany bosses figured this out, too, and created their own "rival" party lines that purported to appeal to machine-wary Democrats but that were, in fact, filled with Tammany loyalists.)
New York's political landscape has changed dramatically in the decades since, but the cross-endorsement system hasn't. In election after election, major-party candidates devote considerable effort to wooing the smaller parties that have prominent, official-looking columns on the fall ballot. A mythology has grown around the this ritual; we are often reminded that no successful mayoral candidate in the fusion era has ever won with just one party's backing.
The same system prevails statewide, where automatic ballot slots are awarded for the next four years to any party whose gubernatorial candidate secures at least 50,000 votes. In most states, this threshold would be too much for a small party to reach. But thanks to cross-endorsements, small-party leaders simply bargain away their top slot to a major party candidate, who invariably receives more than 50,000 votes in the small party's column.
Some people dismiss the needless complexity of the fusion system as an odd but ultimately harmless quirk of New York politics. Sure, casual voters are often surprised to see their preferred candidate's name on the ballot more than once and may not be sure which box to check, but in the end, they still get to vote for their preferred candidate.
But fusion is more than a nuisance. It measurably warps politics and government, both at the city and state levels, giving outsize power and influence to often-anonymous small-party and interest-group leaders who use their ballot columns to extract concessions from the major parties and their candidates.
The Working Families Party, for example, is in many ways an adjunct of organized labor, which provides much of the party's financial and organizational muscle. But fewer than 12,000 city residents actually belong to the party (out of 4.6 million total voters). The statewide enrollment total is just under 40,000 (out of 11.8 million). Still, by cross-endorsing Democrats for major offices, the W.F.P. has won an automatic ballot spot, which it now uses as a carrot to lure Democrats into compliance: if you want to keep appearing in our column, you'd better do X.
The tiny Conservative Party has been around longer and has had an even more visible effect on the New York Republican Party. Its chairman, Bay Ridge liquor-store owner Mike Long, has long made life miserable for culturally liberal Republicans, sabotaging their efforts to win G.O.P. nominations with threats to deny them access to the Conservative column in the fall.
Two simple steps could eliminate the disproportionate influence of small parties-and the attendant need for candidates to make exorbitant concessions to their agendas. One would be to ban cross-endorsements: no more leeching off of the name I.D. of the major-party candidates and profiting from voter confusion. If you want official-party status, you have to earn it with your own candidate.
The other is to rethink the premium that New York's ballot procedures place on party labels. In some states, voters receive ballots that group candidates according to the office they are seeking, with their partisan affiliation listed under their names. In New York, each party receives its own column; candidates unaffiliated with any party are free to run, but (unless they create their own party and recruit hordes of candidates for a column of their own) their names are banished to a remote corner of the ballot, sure to escape the notice of many casual voters.
That's why Mike Bloomberg can't run as the one thing he actually wants people to believe he is: a true independent.
Follow Steve Kornacki via RSS.