December 20, 2014
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Legislators ‘dared’ to end master lever, embrace term limits
LOOKOUT
John Hazen-White Jr.

One of the most persistent negatives about Rhode Island is the fact of our being a one party state. We continue to elect Democrats to the General Assembly despite the poor results that we all have to live with. Yes, we elect Republicans and now an independent to the governorship as a brake, one supposes, on concentrating overweening power in the legislative branch, but the governorship in Rhode Island is a relatively weak position to begin with. Being a one party state advances only one agenda, and sucks fresh air out of the room of public policy debate.

The last election was skewed heavily Democratic of course because of the presidential contest and reaffirmed Rhode Island as a super Blue State. Democrats at all levels and in all races were elected on the coat tails of Obama’s win. The feeble Republican minority in the legislature was further diminished.

For those of us who persist in the notion that Rhode Island can evolve to be a more representative and progressive state with a give and take that only a strengthened opposition can provide, the 2012 election was a wake up call, and one of the bells that’s ringing in our ears is tolling for an end to the master level option on the ballot.

Right after the election I decided that I would challenge Rhode Islanders – dare them really – to stand up and do two things. One is to take a fresh look at term limits as a means to finally end the perpetual legislators who get reelected no matter what they do or don’t do during their years in office, and the perpetual leaders who can preside over affairs on Smith Hill for years at a stretch. The other item on my “dare you” list is the master lever, also known as the “straight party option” (or the more colorful so called “shameful legacy of machine politics”), that Democrats are joined at the hip to and which guarantees the state’s one party government dysfunction.

So I was most encouraged when, as the new year dawned, one politician after another – plus the state Board of Elections – started to come out publicly in calling for an end to the master lever, a development that news media outlets jumped to support. It reconfirmed for me that I certainly wasn’t alone in wanting to knock this thing off, and that if enough people rallied around this cause it might just possibly get done – and maybe even this year.

Then we witnessed the estimable Ken Block come out with a damning report on the master lever based on examining ballots from the last election in Burrillville, where his researchers discovered that folks didn’t even understand how to use the master lever, often canceling out their all Democrat votes by making individual ballot choices further down in the ballot. Now we can see that the lever is not just a tool of the majority party but a misunderstood and misused vote canceller to boot.

Further strengthening the end the master lever movement is the bipartisan House legislation - H5072, an “Act relating to…the conduct of elections,” put up by Representatives Marcello, Newberry, Hearn, Hull and Giarrusso, and referred to the House Judiciary Committee where it now resides. The legislation strikes the existing language that permits a voter to “vote for all candidates of one party” and also eliminates the language on the ballot to be able to do so.

The question of course is whether the legislation will ever see the light of day or get tabled in Judiciary. If it does, then it will be because the Democratic leadership won’t give it up, like a toy they’ve grown too fond of and which their parents (we voters) expect them to grow out of. Not surprisingly, House Speaker Fox and Senate President Paiva Weed have either remained mum on the issue or, in the case of Fox, dismissed it as being a low priority this legislative year with all the new-found emphasis on reviving our economy and sparing us further national humiliation every time a new business poll comes out.

We should, however, expect the legislature to be able to walk and chew gum at the same time. And, in fact, it can - witness the marriage equality debate going on at the moment.

The leadership needs to see that Rhode Islanders are focusing on seeing them do the right thing by the master lever and rescind it once and for all. To let them know how you feel, go to Ken Block’s www.masterlever.

org, learn more, and sign the online petition. As this writing there are 1,880 signatures posted there – let’s all take a moment to grow that figure dramatically.

As for my Lookout effort, it may be time to dust its starter off and crank up a public campaign that no elected official can miss.


Comments
2 comments on this item

Excellent comment. We need more business leaders to come out in support of eliminating the Master Lever and for Term Limits. Rhode Island would be much better served by the adoption of both issues. This State is too small, to inbred, and with too many people "who know a guy" to continue to perpetuate the problem of "eternal" reelection of people who just continue to do or fail to do the same old things. We need change!

Thank, John, for making the points so well!

I'm also on record as supporting elimination of the "master lever," for a couple of reasons--it'll ent this silly topical debate, won't matter a wit for most races, and will eliminate a major issue for "non-partisan elections," (another silly and nonsensical notion). As for "term limits," The only credible study I am aware of on the topic “Legislating Without Experience" (2007) regarding the stated objectives concludes, :...the stated objectives of the proponents of terms lmits have not been met........arguments made by opponents of term limits, in large part, have been borne out." Since I find hard data far more convincing than dares, I'd welcome any study findings re:term limits that may support the arguments for their imposition.

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