Ken Block, founder and chairman of the Moderate Party of Rhode Island, created quite the buzz last week when he launched his new website, www.MasterLever.org.
The purpose of the site is simple: promote his stance that the “master lever,” or straight party option at the polls, should be banned in Rhode Island. The master lever law was enacted in Rhode Island in 1939 by a Republican-dominated legislature. The “master lever” term was coined when voting machines required voters to physically pull levers to cast their votes, and though those machines were replaced with today’s current electronic system in the late 1990s, the law has stayed on the books.
By visiting the masterlver.org site, those who support Block’s stance can send an automated letter to high-ranking officials like Governor Lincoln Chafee, Senate President Teresa Paiva-Weed and House Speaker Gordon Fox.
Block said the initial launch of the website was a bit premature and was prompted by a Providence Journal story that ran last week. Since then, Block said 500 people have sent letters via the site to support the ban of the master lever.
In the days following the site’s launch, various groups and individuals have echoed their support of Block’s stance. This week, Secretary of State A. Ralph Mollis announced his intent to introduce a bill that would remove the master lever option.
Mollis introduced legislation in 2011 to get rid of the straight party option and, according to Spokesman Chris Barnett, the legislation he plans to introduce this year will be identical. The bill to ban the master lever in 2011 was sponsored by Rep. Michael Marcello and Senator David Bates. Both bills were held for further study.
In addition to Mollis, Block’s campaign has gotten support from Governor Chafee as well.
“It is time for Rhode Island to join the majority of states and eliminate the master lever from the ballot,” said Governor Chafee in a statement issued Tuesday. Sixteen states currently have the master lever on the books, but Block said only 15 actually use it.
“Any mechanism that contributes to voter confusion – and worse, voter disenfranchisement – should not be on the ballot,” said Chafee. “Its time has come.”
Voter confusion is one of the main reasons Block said the master lever option should be eliminated.
According to the Board of Elections, 74,399 voters used the straight party option to vote for Democrats: 21,139 for Republicans and 9,295 for the Moderate Party. Altogether, 104,844 out of 438,571 voters who had the straight party option on their ballot (same-day registration voters for president did not have this option) used it. That’s roughly 24 percent of voters.
But Block said the problem goes deeper than the numbers show. For example, 9,295 who pulled the master lever for the Moderate Party occurred in cities where there were no Moderate Party candidates on the list; the Moderate Party only had candidates in Burrillville, East Greenwich, South Kingstown, Central Falls and East Providence. Block said people are often confused by the true purpose of the straight ticket option and use it to identify their affiliation.
“It’s a political Rorschach test,” he said. “I am ‘fill in the blank.’”
Block said anything that causes voter confusion should be “eliminated as quickly as possible.”
Another issue is that straight ticket voting tends to occur more often in presidential election years. Block said the number of master lever “pulls” increased from 2010 to 2012, a sign that many people were at the polls to vote solely for their favored presidential candidate. But the consequence of voting a straight party ticket, solely to cast a vote for president, is that many candidates that the voter is unfamiliar with also get their support, said Block.
“Quadrennial voters don’t know who these [other candidates] are,” he said. “Should people be casting a ballot for people they haven’t heard of?”
By eliminating this single party option, Block said those voters could simply cast their vote for the president and walk out of the booth. In 2010, roughly 46,000 voters used the single party option, a number that more than doubled last November.
“That’s a substantial hurdle to overcome as a non-Democratic candidate,” said Block of the additional 50,000 votes.
In addition to the confusion it causes, Block said the master lever option often detracts votes from non-partisan candidates, like school committee members. It’s called “undervoting,” where a voter abstains – knowingly, or in the case of the master lever, potentially unknowingly – from casting a vote for contested candidates on the ballot. Block said he’s also curious to see if using the master lever dissuades voters from answering back-of-the-ballot referendum questions.
Where the master lever is typically seen as damaging to non-Democratic candidates, since Rhode Island is a blue state, Block said it can also be harmful to Democrats, too.
According to Block, when a voter casts a straight party ticket, no additionally marked votes for non-partisan candidates are counted. However, if they cast a straight party ticket and then additionally mark votes for partisan candidates, their straight party vote is discounted. It’s a tricky system that Block said most Rhode Islanders don’t understand.
He used the example of casting a straight Democratic ticket. The voter in Block’s example also wants to ensure his favorite partisan council candidate gets their vote, so they mark that as well. Because of that additional mark, the computer system gets confused and no other Democrat on their ballot gets their vote.
“You always override the master lever if you mark an individual candidate,” explained Block. “It’s a very wonky thing, but the impact is very real.”
Cranston Mayor Allan Fung said he had first-hand experience with the impact of the master lever during his 2006 election. When his team requested a recount of the ballots, what they discovered was that many people had cast a single party ballot and had circled or marked Fung’s name, too.
“People don’t know how it works,” he said. “It disenfranchises one party over another.”
Both Fung and Warwick Mayor Scott Avedisian – both Republicans – said they see the master lever as a problem for non-partisan candidates, too.
“Since there are some non-partisan offices on the ballot, straight ticket voters – 6,859 this last election alone in Warwick – do not actually vote for School Committee candidates,” said Avedisian. “The usual fall-off between the number of people who vote in a mayoral race and the number who cast ballots in the School Committee races is large anyway. Taking another 6,859 votes out of contention for School Committee is wrong.”
Avedisian said banning the single party option would make the voting system stronger and allow the people of Warwick, and other cities, to more acutely choose their elected officials.
Johnston Mayor Joseph Polisena, a Democrat, would not say if he supported or opposed the master lever ban. Instead, he voiced his displeasure with the timing of the campaign to ban it.
“The state is financially collapsing and they’re worried about the master lever? That’s why 24,000 people moved out of state,” Polisena said, referencing recent U.S. Census estimates that 24,000 people have left Rhode Island since 2004.
Instead of worrying about the master lever, Polisena said the “buffoons” who raised the issue should be focused on ways to reconstruct the Rhode Island economy and jobs market. But he added, “Ken Block is a good guy…a smart businessman.”
Still, Block said now is the best time to make a move on the decades-old master lever law.
“One of the symptoms of a broken economy is the dysfunction of our political system,” he said.
Block said the current makeup of the legislature is unrepresentative of the body of Rhode Island voters. About 10 percent of Rhode Island voters are registered Republicans, compared to 41 percent registered Democrats; most are unaffiliated. The vast majority of legislators elected in November are Democrats, with only 11 Republicans out of the 113 General Assembly members.
“That’s unhealthy,” he said. “I don’t care who the party is.”
Block said by fixing the workings of the Assembly, the rest of Rhode Island would benefit.
“You need a vibrant Democracy to effectively work your way out of problems like this, and we don’t have one,” he said.
For the site, masterlever.org, Block said he has been polling legislators at the State House to get their opinions on the master lever ban. According to Block, most are in support of it, while those who are against the ban say the single party option benefits them at the polls. A full list of the elected officials’ stances on the master lever issue is available on the site.
Block, who tossed his hat into the gubernatorial race in 2010, said he “honestly doesn’t know” if he’ll run again. For now, he’s focused on his business, Simpatico Software, of which he is the president, and the master lever campaign.