Ken Block’s long-fought battle to eliminate the master lever is gaining almost 100-foot soldiers a day thanks to the Internet.
And Block, chairman of the Moderate Party of Rhode Island, thinks that this may be the year when the state rids itself of a device that he says is harmful to Rhode Island elections and confuses voters.
After seven years of fighting to eliminate the master lever, Block created the Eliminate the Master Lever in Rhode Island website (www.masterlever.org) to garner support for House Bill 5072.
“This year I realized it couldn’t be done in the same way; this hasn’t been effective in 30 years, why would it be effective now?” said Block in a phone interview Tuesday.
Yesterday, the bill was the subject of a hearing before the House Judiciary Committee. Block feels the website, whose online petition had 2,404 signatures by noon Wednesday, has shown legislators the public wants change.
Nonetheless, Speaker of the House Gordon Fox is still not convinced.
“He has not been overly supportive of this,” said Larry Berman, Fox’s spokesperson. “He has said that it is an option. Nobody is forced to fill in a box; some people like that option.”
Berman went on to say, however, that Fox would listen to all of Wednesday night’s testimony and speak with fellow legislators on both sides.
“There is more support for it this year,” he said.
Block hopes that support is related to the new site. In addition to sending messages to individual legislators and city councils, citizens have used the site to send messages directly to Governor Lincoln Chafee, Fox, Senate President M. Teresa Paiva-Weed, House Majority Leader Nicholas Mattiello and Senate Majority Leader Dominick Ruggerio.
In terms of Warwick, the site, which lists the positions of all officials, lists Sen. Michael J. McCaffrey, Sen. Erin P. Lynch, Rep. Eileen S. Naughton and Rep. K. Joseph Shekarchi as unknown. The City Council’s position is also listed as unknown.
“We wanted to proactively tell Warwick that their residents want this change,” said Block.
Also, Sen. William A. Walaska, Rep. Joseph M. McNamara, Rep. David A. Bennett, Rep. Frank Ferri and Rep. Joseph A. Trillo are all listed in favor, while Rep. Patricia Serpa is opposed.
Mayor Scott Avedisian has said he also supports the elimination of the master lever. A statement by the mayor is even featured in the “Notable Quotes” page of the new site.
“The master lever hurts nonpartisan candidates down on the ballot,” the mayor writes. “The normal dropoff between a candidate for mayor and the nonpartisan school committee means that many do not actually cast a ballot for school committee. Since the school committee represents more than half of the city’s budget, it is critical that people make informed decisions about candidates for that position. Getting rid of the master lever will break through the old politics of the past and allow for more representation for the people.”
McNamara, who was made aware of the issue after the most recent election, agrees with the mayor’s sentiments.
“I think when you have nonpartisan races, people who use the master lever are sometimes disenfranchised,” said McNamara in a phone interview. In Warwick’s case, with our school committee being so important, I think there is going to be a huge focus, and rightfully so, on those nonpartisan races [in the future].”
McNamara went on to say that, as a person who has run for office, candidates want every vote to count, and eliminating the master lever will help ensure that.
Undervoting due to the use of a master lever is one of the main concerns of John Marion, executive director of Common Cause Rhode Island, an organization that has supported elimination for years.
“There is undervoting on things that affect your everyday life,” said Marion during a phone interview, referring to master lever users failing to vote for school committee and town councils.
Marion said that when Rhode Island used old machines and the lever was indeed a physical lever, switches would move their position when the lever was used. If a race was not covered by the master lever, voters would be alerted that they still needed to complete their ballot because switches would remain in the vote not cast position.
“[With today’s system] there is no way to tell a voter they have not voted in those non-partisan races,” said Marion.
The other main concerns brought up by Marion was that questions on ballots are not covered by master levers, and in races where voters chose multiple candidates, one vote for a different party can make votes invalid. For example, if an individual voted master lever Democrat, but decided to cast a vote for a neighbor who was running for a seat on the City Council as a Republican, any votes for Democrats believed to be secured by the master lever in the City Council race would be cancelled out.
“Their vote isn’t counted so they are disenfranchised and candidates are disenfranchised because they are losing votes,” said Block.
Block hoped that his site, which has provided him with a mailing list of supporters, lead citizens to attend yesterday’s hearing; he was expecting between 100 and 200 supporters at the State House. Whether they choose to speak or silently show their support, Block believes the addition of public involvement will make the difference in his cause.