After decades of unsuccessful efforts, it appears the demise of the master lever in Rhode Island’s voting booths may finally be near.
The House Judiciary Committee this week gave its unanimous backing to an amended version of a proposal brought forward by Warwick state Rep. K. Joseph Shekarchi, sending the bill to the full chamber. Speaker Nicholas Mattiello has said he expects the proposal to pass the House.
The Senate’s Judiciary Committee held a version of the bill earlier this year despite much support for the measure.
The attention surrounding the master lever this year is heightened both by the impending election in November and the continued advocacy of Ken Block, the founder of the defunct Moderate Party who is now a Republican candidate for governor. Shekarchi has said Block’s emphatic argument in favor of eliminating the lever, which allows for straight-party voting, was “compelling” and convinced him of the need for action.
That appetite for movement on the issue clearly goes far beyond the bill’s sponsor and his colleagues. Many citizens and public officials offered testimony on the master lever ahead of the House committee’s vote, with virtually all echoing the same sentiment.
“I’m going to be furious if we have this hearing and then it’s held for further study,” said 77-year-old Bruno “Buddy” Tassoni of Johnston during his testimony.
The arguments for the bill’s elimination have long been and remain straightforward. Straight-party voting discourages voters from more active engagement, and limits the ability of different voices to be heard in an environment dominated by one political party.
Many assert that the lever is confusing, with voters misinterpreting its use as a statement of affiliation or ideology rather than an actual across-the-board vote for a single party. Even the lever’s name carries significant symbolic weight in a state where the political process has been too often marred by cronyism and corruption.
Shekarchi’s bill had initially called for elimination of the master lever by 2016, although the amendment supported by the House committee would make the change immediate.
A major concern voiced by opponents of the lever’s elimination was the potential for confusion on the part of elderly voters, although the desire to move quickly, testimony refuting that point and the inclusion of provisions for training and outreach won out.
The argument was also made that the master lever is, in fact, popular, and in fairness it should be noted that statistics from the secretary of state’s office do indicate nearly a quarter of Rhode Islanders used the lever when voting in 2012.
But in a state facing immense challenges, attention should be less focused on current use of the lever and directed more toward the need to encourage participation in the political process. Even if it is largely symbolic, removing the lever draws added attention to individual races and sends a signal to those whose apathy or cynicism may have previously kept them away.
The underlying nature of the political process is unlikely to change anytime soon. The debate on the master lever itself provided evidence of that, as it was Shekarchi’s proposal – and not one brought forward by state Rep. Michael Marcello, who challenged Mattiello for the speakership after Gordon Fox’s resignation from the post – that was finally considered.
But as our elected leaders and those vying for office talk about transparency, about reinventing our state and reinvigorating its economy, any step that makes politics and government more transparent and welcoming should be on the table. In the case of eliminating the master lever, it’s an idea whose time is long overdue.