January 7, 2013

Ban the Master Lever!

Patrick Laverty

We've written about this multiple times before, banning the master lever, also known as straight ticket or straight party voting. It's that option at the top of a ballot where you can simply connect one line and vote for every candidate on the ballot affiliated with that party, in partisan races. I believe this should be eliminated from our ballot, like most states have done. However, in the past, the idea hasn't been able to gain any real traction because it didn't have a person with the time or resources to really drive it in a meaningful way. Robert Healey, a frequent candidate has pushed for its elimination, and Secretary of State Ralph Mollis has advocated for this law change, but without any real campaigning.

Now, one-time candidate for Governor and Moderate Party chairman Ken Block is starting a push to eliminate straight ticket voting from our system. His web site, masterlever.org has information about the use of the lever, bi-partisan comments from supporters of removing the master lever, a running tally of those who support and oppose his action in the Statehouse as well as an easy way for people to write to the state's leaders and request that this change is made.

Sure, it's easy to say that I support this simply because I am not a Democrat and it doesn't help me. But let's take a look at the masterlever.org web site and see if there are any Democratic supporters.

Rep. Edith Ajello, Rep. Raymond Hull, Rep. Peter Palumbo, Rep. Frank Ferri, Rep. Lisa Tomasso, Rep. Teresa Tanzi, Rep. Spencer Dickinson, Rep. Donna Walsh, Rep. Larry Valencia, Rep. Michael Marcello, Rep. Gregory Costantino, Rep. Lisa Baldelli-Hunt, Rep. Gregg Amore, Rep. Joy Hearn, Rep. John Edwards, Rep. Deborah Ruggiero, Rep. Peter Martin
Sen. Louis DePalma, Sen. Marc Cote, Sen. William Walaska, Sen. Leo Raptakis, Sen. Susan Sosnowski

Right there are twenty-two Democrats at the Statehouse that are in favor of this. That's more than the entire Republican caucus, so it'd seem fair to label this issue as bi-partisan.

Plus, there have been studies on the subject and the results have indicated that if our goal is to preserve the integrity of elections, using the master lever is not the way to go. Statistics show great amounts of undervotes on ballots when using the straight party option. An undervote is when a vote is not tallied in a specific race. Many towns have non-partisan races for some seats and these are not covered by the straight ticket option. So if a voter didn't take the time to go down and vote in these races, how do we know how many other races the voter did not intend to vote in?

High ranking elections officials have also advocated for the elimination of this option, including the John Daluz, the Chairman of RI Board of Elections:

"the Board voted 3-1 to support the repeal of Rhode Island General Law 17-19-15 Party Levers, to reduce undervotes and eliminate voter confusion."
The good government groups also support this change:
"the master lever, threatens to reverse that process. It's time to eliminate it from Rhode Island's ballot." - Margaret Kane, President, Operation Clean Government
"Almost two decades ago Rhode Island had the foresight to move into the 20th century with our voting machines. Unfortunately our ballot design is stuck in the 19th century with the outdated and confusing master lever. It's time for it to go." - John Marion, Executive Director, Common Cause RI
"The best academic evidence indicates that when voters use the master lever their true preferences for candidates and parties are not realized." - The American Journal of Political Science, 2012
And lastly, even the guy who is in charge of the entire Rhode Island election system, the Secretary of State, a Democrat himself has suggested that we eliminate the straight-ticket option:
"The master lever has the potential to inadvertently disenfranchise some voters and causes too many others to question the fairness of their elections. I'm convinced the time has come to take it off the ballot"
When the evidence is that overwhelming from people who have actually studied this issue, our politicians in opposition to banning the lever at the Statehouse look pretty silly when they testify about this and begin their statements with "I think..." or "I believe...". The data is there. The proof is there. Voters can be disenfranchised when this is an option. Voters' true intent is often not realized.

It's time to join the other 34 US states who have decided to ban the straight party option. Contact your Senator and Representative, as well as Governor Chafee and tell them you support eliminating the master lever.

Quotes taken from http://www.masterlever.org

Comments, although monitored, are not necessarily representative of the views Anchor Rising's contributors or approved by them. We reserve the right to delete or modify comments for any reason.

All other considerations aside, the thing that must be recalled is this:

1. The "lever" is no longer mechanical. So if you are voting in a partisan race for local office where the top four finishers (or whatever) out of a group of candidates win, and you vote straight party but then also choose to vote for one candidate for that local office from the other party, the net result is a cancellation of all votes for the "master lever" party for that local office. Example: In Burrillville in 2014 four council seats will be up. Both the Dems and GOP will probably field 4 candidates each. If I go to vote and choose the master lever for the Dems, but also check off one box for one GOP candidate, only that GOP vote registers. No Democrat gets a vote from me for the council because the machine cannot tell which of the four Democrats I didn't want to vote for and thus it tosses them all out. If that is not voter confusion, I do not know what is.

2. In a non-partisan local race town like North Smithfield, the reverse problem happens - I may choose the "lever" but it doesn't register any votes for local office despite the fact that both parties tend to run endorsed slates for "non-partisan" local offices.

Forget partisanship - the lever does in fact cause problems in local elections, sometimes benefitting one party, sometimes another. It is documented.

Posted by: Brian C. Newberry at January 7, 2013 12:10 PM

Where is our resident authority on all things polling from RIFuture to explain to us why the master lever is such a benefit?

Posted by: Dan at January 7, 2013 1:13 PM

Check with Matt Guerra about the 146 votes with the " master lever " for Moderate Party candidates with no Moderate candidates on the Lincoln ballot.

Posted by: leprechaun at January 7, 2013 2:40 PM

"Check with Matt Guerra about the 146 votes with the " master lever " for Moderate Party candidates with no Moderate candidates on the Lincoln ballot."

Was there a point to this comment? If you're saying it takes all kinds, I think we get it. If not, I'm not sure where you were going with it.

Posted by: Max D at January 7, 2013 2:57 PM

Leprechaun, why check with Matt Guerra? On the site, Ken Block mentions that the Moderate Party of RI gained a cumulative 9,000 straight ticket votes in the last election, even though they only had five candidates. The vast majority of those 9,000 were cast on ballots that had no Moderate Party candidate and even Block has stated that it's a problem.

Posted by: Patrick at January 7, 2013 2:59 PM

I actually was one of those. I hit the Master Lever for Moderate even though my ballot was entirely uncontested Democrat shoo-ins except for the seats in D.C.

Why did I do it? It was the only way to signal my support for the Moderate Party on an otherwise pointless ballot. I spent two hours to vote on a ballot that was full of 'choose one (out of one)' or 'choose seven (out of seven); there's no way I wasn't going to indicate my frustration somehow.

Posted by: mangeek at January 7, 2013 6:29 PM

I agree. Let's get rid of the lever. I signed, and everyone else should too.

Posted by: Mike McCarthy at January 8, 2013 2:10 AM

What is interesting in urban and other solid Democratic areas in Rhode Island most voters vote for the Democratic candidates regardless unless it is Republican that has state wide appeal in places like Pawtucket, Johnston, which normally heavily Democratic.
The best test of the assumptions could be in the Westerly-Chariho region where there is Republican strength but neither party of these four towns rarely run a full slate. However the town council races, I have been involved in since this new system was adopted has NEVER had both parties run a full slate for town council in Hopkinton.
Since the 1970's the top five vote getters were elected to the town council. Previous to that town council members and most other Rhode Island towns if not all ran for a numbered seat, at-large.
I may have been a victim of this mechanical situation. I may have bebefitted from it?
In straight historical terms, I am the first Republican since 1966 to be elected to a sixth term as a Hopkinton Town Council member. The last Republican now deceased, actually won his elections for a numbered seat at-large. Interestingly, I was the only Republican listed on the ballot who could have lost but won. All other Republicans listed on the ballot as Republicans in Hopkinton in 2012 lost except me.
Scott Bill Hirst
Member, Hopkinton Town Council

P.S. I understand the mechanical problem with the ballot in multiple candidate choice races like town council and school committee CAN be corrected!

Posted by: scottbillhirst at January 9, 2013 12:44 PM

The current ballot you can vote a straight ticket for one party then vote for the other party/parties candidates individually or do write-ins. That is technically possible.
Scott Bill Hirst
Member, Hopkinton Town Council

Posted by: scottbillhirst at January 9, 2013 12:49 PM

This is the year to get rid of the Master Lever. As indicated by the preceding comments, it is a thoroughly misleading practice. If we do nothing else this year, let's make voting in Rhode Island accurate. That will benefit every candidate and voter. There is no downside, as all but 16 states across the nation have determined. Go to www.masterlever.org and sign the petition to do away with the Master Lever.

Posted by: Harry Staley at January 10, 2013 4:34 PM
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