July 21, 2024 1:47 am

Local News

New: Former Republicans Seek to Create New Centrist Party and Utilize Fusion Voting in Michigan

Credit: iStock

by Jon King, Michigan Advance

Calling the alliance of disaffected Republicans and moderate Democrats “short-term triage,” a former leader of Michigan Republicans says he and other pro-democracy conservatives plan to form a new party and then challenge the state’s ban on what’s known as fusion voting.

Jeff Timmer, the one-time executive director of the Michigan Republican Party, told the Advance that he and other former Republicans will petition the Board of State Canvassers at their May 19 meeting to form the Michigan Common Sense Party.

Timmer, who is a senior advisor to the anti-Donald Trump Lincoln Project and co-founder of Republicans and Independents for Biden, told the Advance that the effort is not about lodging a meaningless protest vote, but instead providing additional votes for those candidates who respect the outcome of elections.

“There’s a two-pronged strategy here that involves fusion voting, where more than one party can nominate a candidate,” said Timmer. “Michigan, like many other states, has a statutory ban on fusion voting so that a person cannot appear on more than one ballot line. But in Michigan that wasn’t always the case.”

Fusion voting would allow third parties to nominate a major-party candidate on their ballot with the aim of giving independent voters more power. It was prevalent in the late 19th century, especially in the nation’s farmbelt, allowing minor parties who lacked the ability to credibly field candidates at the state and federal level to win local elections and maintain a measure of political power they otherwise would not enjoy. 

However, state legislatures eventually began to ban the practice in order to limit third party influence so that today it’s only legal in a handful of states, while just New York and Connecticut practice it regularly.

California, which only permits fusion voting in presidential elections, allowed Trump to utilize the practice in 2016 when he was the nominee of both the Republican Party and the far-right American Independent Party, the first time that had happened in that state in at least 80 years.

Timmer said the Michigan Common Sense Party would not seek to deprive votes to viable Democratic candidates, but instead provide additional support to moderate candidates they might not otherwise have a shot at winning over.

“We would be cross-nominating either Republicans or Democrats who fit the center-left or center -right.” he said. “I’ve had so many people tell me, ‘I can’t support the Republicans anymore, but I just can’t support the Democrats, either.’ It’s just part of their DNA. And as long as we continue to live in a zero-sum game where it either has to be a Republican or a Democrat, it’s just an implausible scenario going forward in my mind, that the pro-democracy coalition that’s formed in Michigan and then supported Gov. [Gretchen] Whitmer and [President] Joe Biden in the last three elections will continue.”

Timmer said while he and other supporters of the effort have been very vocal in their opposition to Trump and the far-right takeover of the GOP, it would be too simplistic to say this is solely a reaction to Trump.

“These are people who have left the Republican Party because of the rise of extremism and the rise of authoritarian, anti-constitutional, anti-rule of law tendencies in the Republican Party. The rise of racism and intolerance in the Republican Party, not just Trump,” said Timmer. “These are people like myself who aren’t Democrats when it comes to most policy issues, but have allied ourselves with the Democrats for lack of a viable alternative. And like I said, we’re not looking to field our own separate slate of candidates.”

Timmer said if the effort can successfully gain political party status, the first order of business will not be to endorse candidates, but instead to file a lawsuit in the Michigan Court of Claims to overturn Michigan’s ban on fusion voting, and follow the process to the Michigan Supreme Court if necessary.

“I imagine the Republican Party will be resistant to this,” he said. “And I expect that the Republican Party will appeal this all the way to that final venue.”

The legal path the fledgling new party is contemplating is anything but clear. In 1997, the United States Supreme Court ruled 6-3 that a ban on fusion voting in Minnesota was constitutional.

Then-Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist wrote the majority opinion, in which he said the wisdom of such bans was not the issue. 

“It may well be that, as support for new political parties increases, these arguments will carry the day in some States’ legislatures,” he wrote. “But the Constitution does not require Minnesota, and the approximately 40 other States that do not permit fusion, to allow it.”

We would be cross-nominating either Republicans or Democrats who fit the center-left or center -right. I’ve had so many people tell me, ‘I can’t support the Republicans anymore, but I just can’t support the Democrats, either.’ It’s just part of their DNA.

– Jeff Timmer

Meanwhile, Timmer said he understands that the Michigan Democratic Party (MDP) is unlikely to support the effort, but hopes it won’t actively oppose it, either. 

While he insists the intended effect of fusion voting is to compel candidates to reach outside of their base for support, he isn’t shy about what he hopes it will mean for the GOP in Michigan.

“I want to burn it down because it is a clear and present danger to the American way of life,” he said. “But more importantly, the intent of this effort is to force candidates in close races, be they statewide or competitive districts, to build coalitions with other parties in order to win in general elections. And even though those parties may only represent 1, 2 or 5% of the vote, that’s going to matter in close elections.”

He pointed to the 2024 election to fill the U.S. Senate seat held by Debbie Stabenow (D-Lansing), who has decided against seeking another term. 

“[U.S. Rep. Elissa Slotkin (D-Lansing) could become the Democratic Party nominee,” Timmer said. “She could get the Green Party nomination, and she could get the Michigan Common Sense Party nomination, and 10,000 votes that any of the smaller parties get could become the difference maker in a close statewide election.”

Slotkin is serving her third term in Congress, having won all three elections by single digits in swing districts. She is considered among the frontrunners among Democrats to replace Stabenow. Businessman Nasser Beydoun also is running as a Democrat and other potential candidates could include attorney Zack Burns, actor Hill Harper and Pamela Pugh, president of the Michigan State Board of Education.

Republicans have said they plan to “aggressively target” the seat with businessman Michael Hoover and state Board of Education member Nikki Snyder running. Other potential GOP candidates include former U.S. Rep. Peter Meijer (R-Grand Rapids) and Kevin Rinke, who unsuccessfully ran for governor last year.

Timmer said he believes American politics has had fairly stable center-left and center-right factions for more than 150 years, but that is no longer the case.

“Our politics have taken place between the 40 yard lines,” he said. “But the Republicans are way back in their own freaking end zone, off the charts. I just don’t think we can exist in this crisis mode, election cycle after election cycle after election cycle, where every election becomes a quest to defeat not just political opponents, but enemies of democracy.”

Another election reform that has been discussed previously is ranked-choice voting (RCV) in which voters are allowed to cast ballots for multiple candidates for each office, in order of preference. If at least half of voters rank a candidate their first choice, that candidate wins. However, if no candidate reaches the necessary 50% threshold, the candidate with the fewest first choice votes is eliminated and their votes are redistributed to the candidate marked as each of those voters’ second choice.

RCV is currently being advocated for by Rank MI Vote, a Michigan-based volunteer-run, nonpartisan, nonprofit organization that describes itself as “dedicated to educating the Michigan public about and placing before voters electoral reforms that increase the range of choice on the ballot and produce fairer outcomes.”

Democrats introduced legislation last year to implement RCV in Michigan, but Republicans in charge of the Legislature didn’t take it up. Now that Democrats are in the majority, it could get a warmer reception, but new legislation has yet to be proposed.

Fusion voting, according to Timmer, would also not be in conflict with straight-ticket voting that was enshrined in the Michigan Constitution along with other voting rights reforms in Proposal 3 of 2018.

“I don’t view that as a deal-breaker. Voters will still have a choice to either vote straight party or split their tickets when we are successful in overturning the ban on fusion voting. That doesn’t change.”

Asked how the effort was being funded, Timmer told the Advance that they are soliciting donations from individuals inside and outside of Michigan from “donors who care about democracy and who put country above party.”

“We have not yet met the requirements to even register/create our committee before this [current] reporting period,” he said. “We will form/register the committee prior to the [Board of State Canvassers] meeting and be subject to regular disclosure thereafter.”

Timmer said the effort is the result of concerns that democracy is imperiled.

“Are we going to elect people who demonstrably have shown that they will not accept the outcome of free and fair elections? That is dangerous,” he said. “We can’t always count on the Tudor Dixons and Matt DePernos losing. We need to take steps that are disruptive to the status quo in order to prevent those kinds of candidates from winning going forward.”

This story was written by Jon King, a contributor to the Michigan Advance, where this story first appeared.

Michigan Advance is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Michigan Advance maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Susan Demas for questions: info@michiganadvance.com. Follow Michigan Advance on Facebook and Twitter.