In Oregon, Working Families Party Appeals to Rural Populists, Reagan Democrats

Phonebanking volunteers for the Working Families Party in Oregon helped it make inroads in “red” counties. Photo: Emily Saxton

In Oregon, unions and community organizations are challenging the two-party system and testing the limits of what they can do together to promote their agenda in elections without being marginalized as “spoilers.”

In November 2005 representatives from 13 local unions and eight community organizations met to begin working toward a Working Families Party in Oregon. We collected about 28,000 signatures in 30 counties and in June 2006 were certified as a minor party.

The real strength of the Working Families Party comes with “fusion” voting, which allows minor parties to nominate any qualified candidates who support our platform, even if they have been nominated by another party as well. The WFP does not want to be charged with taking away enough votes from a less-bad candidate to throw the race to an even worse one.

We introduced bills in 2007 and 2008 to legalize fusion voting, but were stalled in both legislative sessions because of overt opposition from the county clerks, who have routinely opposed election reforms on procedural grounds, and covert opposition from leaders of the Democratic Party, who don’t want competition.

We finally succeeded in 2009 with a compromise bill to create “aggregated” rather than full fusion. Full fusion, which exists in New York, Connecticut, and a few other states, provides for cross-nominated candidates to appear on separate ballot lines for each party’s nomination.

Full Fusion
Democrat Sarah Jones
Working Families Sarah Jones
Republican Elmer Smith
Aggregated fusion
Sarah Jones Democrat, Working Families
Elmer Smith Republican

The idea is that if, say, 10 percent of voters vote for the candidate on the WFP line, that tells the candidate that 10 percent of his or her votes came from people who support the WFP platform—and he should pay attention. It makes a clear statement to both the voter and the candidate about which party the voter supports and thus which issues matter most to the voter.

Aggregated fusion in Oregon—sometimes called fusion lite—lists up to three parties that have nominated the candidate next to the candidate’s name, giving the voter information about which parties support that candidate, but without dividing up the candidate’s votes by party. It is not all we wanted, but it gave us a place to begin.


In the 19th century, when our democracy was younger and more vibrant, fusion voting was legal throughout the country. The Populist Party was a viable third party and fused regularly with the Democrats.

The Populists tended to be rural, native-born, evangelical Protestants; the Democrats were more often urban, blue-collar, recent immigrants and often Catholic. They feuded over temperance, the “cultural” issue of the day, but they could join forces on populist economic issues involving the massive power of the banks, the railroads, and the dominant agriculture corporations. (Sound familiar?)

Through fusion, Oregon voters back in the day elected many Populist state legislators and even a Populist governor.

Precisely because fusion voting gave a choice, and a voice, to militant workers and farmers, the major parties outlawed it in all but a few states in the early 1900s. The two major parties have so dominated our election and legislative processes since then that Oregon is the first state to re-legalize fusion voting in 100 years.


In the 2010 election, our first election since regaining fusion, the process of making our nominations was in many ways more significant than the election outcome. The Working Families Party notified all candidates that we would consider nominating them based on their support for our key issues:

• establishing a state-owned bank for Oregon, modeled after the Bank of North Dakota

• a universal short-term disability insurance program for all workers



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• debt-free higher education at Oregon’s public colleges and universities if a student works full-time during the summer and 10 hours a week during the school year

• insistence that no public monies be spent on job creation unless the jobs pay a living wage, are permanent, and are located in Oregon. (Learn more at Oregon Working Families Party.)

We held regional nominating caucuses, one in each congressional district. All OWFP members—thousands across the state—were invited, to review the questionnaires submitted by candidates in that district.

The caucuses made recommendations to the statewide nominations committee. Where a candidate’s answers were ambiguous, the committee held telephone or face-to-face interviews to clarify. We used the nominations process to get commitments from the candidates at the time when they are most likely to pay attention: during the election season.

In the end, we cross-nominated 35 Democratic candidates for the legislature and for state treasurer, and one Congressional candidate, Peter DeFazio. We also ran one stand-alone WFP candidate, Bruce Cronk for U.S. Senate against free-trade Democrat Ron Wyden.


Oregon’s election results were similar to those around the country: In safe Democratic, urban districts around Portland, the voters returned incumbent Democrats to office. In safe Republican districts in the state’s southern and eastern reaches, they kept incumbent Republicans.

In the handful of “swing districts,” where the electorate had swung to the Democrats in 2008, they swung back to the Republicans. And with only one exception, all open seats went to the Republicans, leaving the Oregon House split 30-30, and the Senate still hanging on a cliff but probably 16-14 in favor of the Democrats.

Because we have aggregated rather than full fusion, it is hard to say exactly what the WFP’s impact was on these races. But we do know that 24 members of the next legislature as well as the state treasurer are on record supporting Working Families’ issues.

That gives us a strong platform from which to move an agenda in 2011.

Our stand-alone candidate, who ran on a strong fair trade platform, got 1.3 percent, allowing the Oregon WFP to remain qualified for the ballot.

Cronk out-polled all other minor party candidates and, as we had predicted, did much better in “red” counties than in the traditionally Democratic counties.

What we are learning is that the Working Families Party appeal in Oregon is with the same people who supported Populist candidates a century ago, the populists in rural areas and disaffected “Reagan Democrats” in former manufacturing areas. We have the makings of a new` populist coalition and we intend to work hard to strengthen it over the next year.

We will have to defend aggregated fusion from the major parties, and fight for full fusion down the road. WFP will push the creation of a state bank through legislative champions.

The hard part will be sticking to our guns in the next election season, when we’ll have to take into account whether the legislators we nominated did—or didn’t—stick to their commitments.

Barbara Dudley is co-chair of the Oregon Working Families Party.

A version of this article appeared in Labor Notes #381, December 2010. Don't miss an issue, subscribe today.


bhkramer | 12/03/10

I am glad that Barbara Dudley and the OWFP folks feel they are making progress in building a worker-friendly alternative to the two major parties, and the OWFP platform sounds great.

But, as suggested in the sidebar about the New York WFP, fusion has severe limits, especially if a state already has strong major-party structures that can essentially ignore pressure from a group that is going to endorse its candidates anyway. New York's Governor-elect Cuomo and Senators Schumer and Gillibrand are NOT "friends of labor."

I would suggest that the OWFP would do more to create a true worker-friendly political dynamic in Oregon by moving away from a fusion strategy, toward becoming a truly independent force. All those "red-county" voters would likely move with it, and maintaining a principled position on working-class issues will garner more respect and enthusiasm from its core constituencies than would having to explain why they have to constantly endorse candidates whose policies are mediocre, if not downright terrible.

Brent Kramer, New York