Dan Lawlor: Magicians of the Master Lever
Monday, March 11, 2013
Rhode Island is a unique state—size, culture, heritage, spunk.
We are also among an outlier group of 15 states that still allow voters a single mark to vote for every candidate of a registered political party on a ballot. With a simple stroke, you can vote for every RI Republican from US Senator to Town Moderator (though, would you believe it, not many people choose that party around here).
It's time to make the Master Lever disappear.
A Source of Confusion
A supporter of the Master Lever, first time State Senator Ryan Pearson, argued, "Personally, I do not use it and prefer voting for each individual candidate. However, many people do use the option for what I presume are two possible reasons—it's either faster or makes it easier for them to select the candidates they want. Anything that makes it harder for voters is something I would oppose."
It's a logical argument to support voter opportunity—the challenge is that, in practice, the Master Lever does confuse voters!
In fall 2010, in Burrillville, for instance, numerous people checked off the straight ticket Moderate Party tab, but then voted for other candidates in races with Moderate candidates.
Findings from John Marion, Beverly Clay, Ken Block, and Mark Brizzard discovered, "Out of 116 total Moderate Party Master Lever ballots, 71 of those ballots—or 61% —yielded NO vote for any of the Moderate Party candidates on the ballot. This is a telling statistic, showing that these voters are not understanding what the purpose of the Master Lever mechanism is supposed to be."
Making it Easy
Some voters appear to think Democrat, Moderate, or Republican are affiliations, not straight ticket options.
Furthermore, especially at the local level, there are numerous non-partisan positions—often times for school committee, sometimes for town council. Master Lever votes skip over this entire swath of candidates. Common Cause has cited research stating, "Voters who use a straight-party option have fewer unintentional under-votes for partisan offices, especially when multiple candidates are to be selected, but they commit as many or more errors of omission in nonpartisan races."
Especially in a context where a race just last fall was decided by one vote, we need to make sure that voting is as straightforward as possible, for all races, partisan and non-partisan.
Secretary of State Ralph Mollis has argued, "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."
Furthermore, the master lever empower parties, not individuals. In Rhode Island, the ballot-approved parties are Democrat, Republican, and Moderate. Libertarians and Greens need not apply.
The Sierra Club of RI has stated the Master Lever, "automatically hampers candidates running as independents or members of other parties. True participatory democracy means we should open up participation in elections. The master lever restricts participation and should be eliminated as the atavistic 'machine politics' tool it is." In other words, the master lever is a throwback to the old days of political bosses, and it's time to move on.
The Time Has Come
No other New England state currently has a Master Lever option. New Hampshire was a hold out, and abolished the function in 2007. Elected officials from Governor Chafee to Mayor Taveras have come out against the Master Lever. Heck, Democratic Party Chair Ed Pacheco and GOP Chair Mark Zaccaria both oppose it.
This Wednesday, March 13 at 4:30pm in room 313 we have a chance to show the legislature how many of us oppose the Master Lever. It’s time to make our ballots more straightforward. If you can, show up at the State House for the hearing considering the bill. Even if you can't testify, sign the paper in support of the legislation. Tell the General Assembly: Make Voting Clear. Eliminate the Master Lever.
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