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Lawmaker Renews Call for Run-Off Elections in Governor’s Race

Wednesday, February 20, 2013


Lincoln Chafee won his election as governor in 2010 with just 36 percent of the vote, a fact that some lawmakers feel justifies a move toward run-off elections in races where no candidate can obtain a majority of votes.

When Rhode Island Governor Lincoln Chafee won election to his position in 2010 with just 36.1 percent of the vote, his opponents said that the results meant that the majority of the state’s voters “weren’t being represented” by the office.

The solution, they argued, was to institute run-off elections in future races with more than two candidates on the ballot in an effort to prevent one person from assuming the state’s highest position with less than a majority of voters on their side.

That initial push died in the House Judiciary Committee but, two years later—and two years before the next election—it may be revving back up again.

State Representative Spencer Dickinson introduced a joint resolution to the House of Representatives last week right before the deadline to file legislation that he hopes restarts the conversation on run-off elections.

And at a time when the 2014 Governor’s Race is shaping up and may include any number of high-profile candidates who could split the vote a variety of ways, the South Kingstown Democrat hopes now is the time that it will finally get some traction in the General Assembly.

Lessons From 2010

Dickinson’s resolution, if adopted, would ask voters to approve a constitutional amendment mandating run-off elections whenever a candidate for governor fails to receive a majority of the votes cast in a race.

The State Rep believes voters need look no further than the current State House to see that change is necessary.

Chafee defeated Robitaille by just under 10,000 votes in that election but the margin of victory was only a difference of 2.5 percent thanks in large part to the performance of third and fourth-place finishers as Democratic candidate Frank Caprio’s garnered 23 percent of the vote and Moderate Party President Ken Block gained the support of 22,146 voters, or 6.5 percent total.

“Chafee’s serving with 36 percent of the vote, which I think is not how it should be,” he said. “I don’t think Chafee should be serving with 36 percent and his governorship is a reminder that this is a problem and that it can happen. I think the percentage … wow, it’s just barely over a third so what a great example. But even if he weren’t Governor, I would still think that we need to accept the idea of run-off elections.”

Had Dickinson’s proposal been law in 2010, Chafee and Robitaille, who won 33.6 percent of the vote, would have gone in front of voters again with the winner needing at least 50 percent of all votes cast to take the reins of Governor.

A Master Lever Reaction

Dickinson feels his resolution is especially important and timely given the statewide support, led by Block, to abolish the so-called ‘master-lever’ ahead of the next general election.

Block has said for years that the ability for voters to cast a straight-party ticket puts independent candidates at a disadvantage and his movement appears to be gaining support as lawmakers on both sides of the aisle have pledged to remove it if, and when, given an opportunity this session.

If that motion moves forward, Dickinson says, the most high-profile political races may become full of independent candidates vying for voter attention as the state shifts away from down-ticket voting on future ballots.

“I think there’s nothing wrong with asking the voters to be a little more thoughtful but I think the two things have to go together,” he said. “I don’t think you want to generate third, fourth, fifth, x number of third parties without having the provision. That dilutes the race even further if it becomes a viable concept, which it would if we eliminated the master lever.”

No Time Like the Present

Dickinson says there was a movement to push for run-off elections following Chafee’s win in 2010 but the talk has since died down.

“That’s the thing,” he said. “We tend to focus on what’s currently important and there’s certainly a reason for that but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t be thinking about these other issues.”

And while he says the General Assembly should focus its time this legislative season “focusing on the economy,” he believes a matter this important is at least worthy of consideration.

“You do have to do the housekeeping and take care of the basics and this is one of them,” he said. “I think it deserves discussion.”


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