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John Perilli: RI Can Get an Easy Win if Senate Kills Master Lever

Wednesday, May 07, 2014


Eliminating the Master Lever is the right thing to do, but not for the reasons you might think, believes John Perilli

It’s about time we aired the last smoke out of the rooms that filled with haze during the political machine days.

Last Thursday, the Rhode Island House voted unanimously to abolish the “master lever,” or the box on the ballot you can fill to vote for all candidates from one party. The bill now heads across the rotunda to the Senate for approval. Supporters of repeal cheered the vote as a measure that would increase participation in local nonpartisan races such as school committee elections, encourage voters to become more informed, and perhaps destabilize Democratic power in the state legislature.

Now, I’m a supporter of repeal––I believe eliminating the master lever makes the act of voting a much more rigorous and thoughtful process, which makes each voter more powerful. But the assumptions I listed that repeal advocates make are, in order: right, half-right, and completely wrong. While repeal is important, both practically and symbolically, it’s just as important to know what we’re getting into. Here’s what repeal would––and would not––do for us.

Going Local

The big winner from the repeal of the master lever would be local politics. One of the main problems with the master lever is the issue of “under-voting:” When you tick that straight-party box, you don’t vote for any candidates who are identified as nonpartisan, and miss ballot referenda as well.

So it plainly follows that eliminating the option to vote straight-ticket will force people in the polling booth to go through and make a decision on every race, both partisan and nonpartisan. Turnout will increase in races for school committee spots that might otherwise have gone neglected, making the results more democratic. And any non-votes in these races become conscious abstentions rather than inadvertent omissions.

The repeal advocates got this one right. Their other two points, however, are not so correct.

Master of Misinformation

Another argument for repealing the master lever runs like this: If you eliminate the straight ticket option, voters will no longer have an excuse to be lazy and will thus become more informed.

This is not so clearly true as the previous argument, at least not in the short term. At first blush, in fact, it is somewhat insulting. Not everyone has the time nor capacity to focus incessantly on politics, and if they don’t, they are not necessarily lazy, nor even––as the subtle implication runs––uninformed. Information on local races is sometimes hard to come by. Many down-ballot candidates don’t have websites, and might not visit every door in their district. So it is not necessarily the voter’s fault if he doesn’t know about a candidate. Sometimes, the only information a voter might have about a candidate is their party ID.

So it seems dubious to me to claim, even implicitly, that repealing the master lever will make voters more informed. If at all, this effect will only happen in the extreme long run, over years or even generations. As making websites becomes easier, and information becomes more accessible, voters might slowly become more informed about local elections. This goal is ideal, but it is unclear to me that the master lever could help us reach it in the short-to-medium term.

Down with Democrats? Not So Fast

The third argument many repeal advocates make is closely related to the second: repealing the master lever will destabilize Democratic dominance in the Ocean State. In the 2012 elections, 104,833 of the 446,049 votes cast––around 23.5 percent––were straight ticket votes, and among those, 74,399––around 71 percent––were Democratic. So will disabling the master lever pull the plush rug out from underneath Rhode Island’s Democrats?


When political scientists study voter behavior, they look for the factors which best determine how people vote, be these issues, identities, or otherwise. But by far the best determinant of voter behavior is party ID. This holds even for most voters who are officially unaffiliated, a group which includes a plurality of Rhode Island voters. In fact, only about three to six percent of voters nationwide actually switch sides between elections. The difference in results over time is mostly due to demographics and turnout. For example, Barack Obama swept up in 2008 due to incredible Democratic turnout; his party got “shellacked” in 2010 because around 50 million fewer people voted.

So, will eliminating the master lever suddenly make voters more elastic? Not likely. Partisans will continue to be partisans, and the minority of true swing voters––whom I suspect weren’t using the Master Lever to begin with––will keep up their habits as well

Not Done Yet

Before we get ahead of ourselves, though, we must remember that the master lever has not been repealed yet. It still must pass through the Senate, which proved during the marriage equality debate last spring that it does not mind being a roadblock to even the Speaker of the House’s ambitions. With a new Speaker in place, will Senate President Teresa Paiva-Weed put her foot down on repealing the master lever, and show who is the more senior of the two legislative leaders?

I hope not. While we can debate what exactly the benefits of repealing the Master Lever will be, it is undoubtedly a good thing. I view the issue not so much as an issue of voter laziness as voter empowerment. When you pull the master lever, who are you actually voting for? The President, the Governor, the high-ticket statewide candidates. Perhaps the mayor, depending on the city. You might not recognize who lower-down on the ballot is winning or losing by your hand. But by going through and physically casting a vote for each candidate, you make the candidates much more accountable to you. If they do you wrong during their terms, you’ll remember their names and withdraw your support next election. This is exactly the reward-and-punish system we need in our elections, and repealing the Master Lever will make it much stronger. Votes might not always be rational, but they ought to at least be intentional.


John Perilli is a native of Cumberland, RI and a junior at Brown University. He is the Communications Director for the Brown University Democrats and works for Magaziner for Treasurer. The opinions presented in this article do not represent those of the organizations of which John Perilli is a member. You can follow John on Twitter @JohnPerilli.


Related Slideshow: Win-Loss Records for 2014 Gubernatorial Candidates’ Campaign Managers

Oftentimes operating largely behind the scenes, a candidate's campaign manager or consultant plays an instrumental role in the outcome of the race.  

The 2014 Rhode Island Gubernatorial candidates have assembled their campaign teams -- and managers, all of whom bring extensive political operative experience to the table.  

Below is a look at the "batting average" of past efforts of the current set of top operatives when they were at the helm of other political races.  

Prev Next

Eric Hyers - Campaign Manager, Gina Raimondo

Congressman David Cicilline's 2010 Campaign:  WON

Congressman David Cicilline's 2012 Campaign: WON

NJ State Senator Nia Gill's 2013 Campaign: WON

MA State Sen. Karen Spilka 2013 Congressional Campaign:  LOST

Winning Percentage: .750

Hyers, who cut his teeth organizing for for now-Senator Kirsten Gillibrand when she first ran for Congress in 2006, worked as a field organizer for John Edwards for President in the 2008 Iowa caucuses, directed a statewide field operation in Wyoming, managed state legislative races in Virginia and New Jersey, and served as the Executive Director of the Connecticut Democratic Party. 

Hyers scored big while managing campaigns in New Jersey and Rhode Island, but came up short most recently in Massachusetts.  

Prev Next

Danny Kedem - Campaign Manager, Angel Taveras

Anthony Wiener's 2013 New York Mayoral Campaign:  QUIT

New Haven Mayor John DeStefano's 2011 Campaign:  WON

Winning Percentage: .500

Kedem joined Wiener's political comeback bid after Weiner had resigned from Congress in a sexting scandal -- only to leave when Wiener once more was caught continuing the habit, spelling his downfall once again.  

Connecticut Magazine's Jennifer Swift delineated Kedem's campaign history as having successful managed a New Haven mayoral bid, as well as outlining Kedem's early days organizing for Missouri Democrat Claire McCaskill’s U.S. Senate campaign and Hillary Clinton's 2008 run for the presidency.

Prev Next

Jeff Britt -- Campaign Consultant, Ken Block

2002 Bruce Bayuk RI General Assembly Write-In Campaign: LOST

2006 RI Governor Donald Carcieri Campaign:  WON

2012 Mark Binder RI General Assembly Campaign: LOST

Winning Percentage: .333

Seasoned political operative Britt lost close races in Bayuk and Binder, but scored big with Carcieri while working alongside Ken McKay.  Following the Bayuk effort, Britt served in the "Carcieri 1" administration to work across the aisle and support GOP efforts statewide.  

Prev Next

Patrick Sweeney -- Campaign Consultant, Allan Fung

2010 John Loughlin Congressional Campaign: LOST

2012 Barry Hinckley Senate Campaign: LOST

Winning Percentage: .000

The former Executive Director of the Rhode Island Republican Party has extensive campaign and consulting experience, but is still looking to win big spearheading a major candidate effort.  

Sweeney was Deputy Campaign Manager for Loughlin in 2010.  

Prev Next

Devin Driscoll -- Campaign Manager, Clay Pell

Northeast Regional Director, Organizing for Action

Communications Director, Rhode Islanders United for Marriage

Winning Percentage:  N/A

Driscoll has headed up successful grassroots efforts and served on the Obama for America campaign in two separate stints, as Rhode Island state director for the 2012 campaign and as a field organizer in 2008.  Managing Pell's run for Governor marks Driscoll's first bid to win a statewide office campaign.  


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