December 22, 2014
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Will leadership ignore the will of the people?
Lookout
John Hazen-White Jr.

It’s happened before and it might happen again. Rhode Island legislators have willfully ignored the will of the citizens of this state in the past (Rmember the fight over separation of powers in the last decade?) and they might do it again this legislative session when it comes to the so-called master lever. As you may know, the master lever option on the ballot allows a voter to circumvent the intended electoral process of voting for individual candidates by simply selecting a party and be done with it.

Straight party voting is a leftover relic of machine politics and most states have done away with it. Not the Ocean State, however. Here Democratic politicians cling to it and it’s one of the reasons why incumbents, no matter how wounded by scandal or pointed out for lack of showing up, get reelected election after election. Democrats like the master lever option, just as Republicans liked it back in 1948 when they voted to place it on the ballot.

Good government folks have been trying to get the language in state election law regarding the master lever removed, all to no avail as the Democratic leadership has ignored their appeals. This winter and spring an even stronger chorus of voices has advocated its elimination. Ironically, hardly anyone has come out to defend the master lever, and when they do they tend to trip over themselves. But despite all the efforts of reformers, the status quo appears likely to prevail once again.

This time around a number of legislators, to their credit, have expressed a desire to vote on the issue – and to vote against the lever – but it looks like they won’t get the chance. That’s because House Speaker Gordon Fox of Providence and Senate President Teresa Paiva Weed and their leadership teams like the master lever. In their districts the master lever helps them, and all fellow Democrats, get reelected and stay in power. They don’t want those bills to come to a vote at all. So the House and Senate bills calling for removal of the straight ticket option in the state’s election law remain locked up in committee, which is where bills that the leadership doesn’t like get snuffed out.

Getting rid of the master lever won’t change the outcome of most elections; virtually all Democrats will still win hands down. But it would send a positive message about reform that would make the beleaguered citizens of our state feel better about their government. Speaker Fox and Senate President Paiva Weed would demonstrate leadership.

It would inspire some good people to get into politics in their belief that the system wasn’t rigged completely against them. It would strengthen business confidence in doing business in the Ocean State. And it would be noted nationally, just like pension reform was.

The General Assembly’s work is not yet done so there is still time for movement on the master lever. All the leadership has to do is to think about their legacy, take a deep breath and let the committee chairs move the bills to a vote. That action would allow the bills to come to a full house vote and expected passage. Those who monitor the views of individual legislators feel confident that floor votes in the House and Senate would bring victory and an end to the master lever.

Not only does the master lever frustrate Republican and Independent candidates, it also is misunderstood and misused. An investigation into the 2010 votes in tiny Burrillville demonstrated that voters who use the master lever often go on to vote for individual candidates on the ballot, which invalidates their vote entirely. The master lever option is not only unfair, it wastes votes.

It’s time for Rhode Island to get rid of it. Perhaps 2013 will be the year.


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