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Ken Block: The Master Lever Challenge to RI Legislators

Wednesday, February 06, 2013


In the wake of the collapse of 38 Studios, a vigorous public debate about why Rhode Island can’t jumpstart its economic development has been underway resulting in numerous conferences, panel discussions and a stream of reports and analyses hoping to point the state, finally, in some new directions. But in all of the ongoing reviews, one theme seems to have solidly emerged: that for too long the state has not acted on data-driven information, and the last-place showing in countless national rankings verify that.

Rhode Island desperately needs evidence-based decision throughout our government. That approach is not only vital to our economic development, it is also vital to how we how we conduct our elections, and thereby protect the integrity of the vote in our state. That is why in recent weeks, I have joined forces with a number of good government groups to highlight the need to do away with straight ticket voting, also commonly referred to as the Master Lever ballot mechanism. The Master Lever allows a voter to cast a vote for all candidates of one political party with a single stroke of the pen.

For the first time that I am aware of, an analysis of actual ballots from a Rhode Island election has produced vivid proof that great numbers of voters misunderstand the purpose of the Master Lever mechanism, have misused the ballot because of it, and in many cases have been disenfranchised because of the Lever.

(Actual ballots from the 2010 General Election which were analyzed, digitized and put online to display the confusion sown by the Master Lever can be viewed here ).

Good for Individual Candidates, Bad for the State

The number of states that still actively use the Master Lever has now dwindled to 15, and there are active efforts to remove the Lever underway in several states. Rhode Island stands alone in New England in still allowing the use of the Master Lever (another unfavorable ranking!). A good body of academic studies conducted outside the state shows that the Lever unbalances elections and causes the disenfranchisement of both voters and candidates, especially in down-ticket races like Town Council and School Committee races.

It is ultimately up to General Assembly lawmakers to pass a bill to eliminate the Master Lever, but what is becoming apparent is that since many of our sitting legislators view the Master Lever as an election advantage to themselves, many are not signing onto the citizen petition calling for its removal from the ballot. The crux of the problem is that Rhode Island needs our General Assembly to pass a law beneficial to the state as a whole, but perceived as disadvantageous to individual legislators.

A legislator is expected to first and foremost vote on issues based on the needs of his or her constituents, and then the needs of the state. Self-interest in a bill’s purpose should never be a consideration in a legislator’s deliberations.

It is important to note that there is support to abolish the Lever from top elected officials and other highly visible political figures, including: Governor Chafee, Secretary of State Mollis, Lt. Governor Roberts, Treasurer Raimondo, almost every elected mayor, every likely candidate for Governor in 2014, and even Democratic Party Chairman Ed Pacheco. All have gone on the record with their support to eliminate the Master Lever from the Rhode Island ballot.

A majority of Representatives have gone on the record in support of eliminating the Master Lever.

Time for a Change

In the days to come, good government advocates will be watching whether General Assembly lawmakers, starting with top legislative leadership, will choose to add their voices to the momentum and make good on the chance to abolish the Master Lever. If legislative leadership ignores this opportunity this year, it will signal that a lack of will persists in the legislature to tackle needed reforms in a range of categories that reach far beyond elections. Either data-driven decision making will begin to take hold in the legislature this year, or vitally needed reforms in the areas of economic development, tax structure, business regulation, and public education standards have little chance of becoming enacted.

I implore Speaker Fox and President Paiva-Weed to evaluate the Master Lever issue strictly on the basis of the large body of evidence showing that it disenfranchises voters. True leadership involves shepherding change that sometimes runs counter to your member’s self-interests – but we know that this kind of change can get done based on the recent pension reforms.

The Master Lever has had a good run – close to 80 years. But times have changed, and the years of this state being governed by insider deals and self-interested driven lawmaking, with a resistance to the type of changes other states adopted long ago, have caught up with Rhode Island. All of the rankings prove it.

It is time to show we can change, keep pace with other states, are not permanently locked in self-serving legislative priorities, and most of all, that we care about the integrity of the vote by our own citizens. Let’s start with the Master Lever.

Please take 60 seconds to petition your government to eliminate the Master Lever by visiting http://www.masterlever.org.

Ken Block is the founder of the Moderate Party and serves as President of the RI Taxpayers organization.


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I thought you were going to perform miracles with our wasteful social services program? The master lever is your big thing?????????

Comment #1 by tom brady on 2013 02 06

When people are confronted with facts that challenge their beliefs and habits, they are more likely to ignore the facts than alter their beliefs and habits. A sad fact.

Comment #2 by Harvey Waxman on 2013 02 06

If you get rid of the master lever how are the sheeple in this state going to vote the idiot Democrat party line? It means they will have to think about who they are voting for. This is scary for the sheeple in this state.

Comment #3 by Joyce Bryant on 2013 02 06

As I was standing outside a polling station when a first-time voter asked me a question about voting. She was unsure who she could vote for because her Italian mother-in-law told her: "justta pull the democratic lever, its a easy".

Comment #4 by Charles Marsh on 2013 02 06

Mr. Block, any chance RI might become a Voter Initiative state? Wouldn't if be great if the people could have more say on issues that concern them? As it stands now the General Assembly decides whats best to for the poor ignorant voters.

Or how about becoming a Right to Work state so that workers could chose whether they want to be in a union or not. Wouldn't that be grand?

Comment #5 by James Berling on 2013 02 06

In spite of Mr. Brady's snide comment, keep up the good work Mr. Block!

Comment #6 by Michael Byrnes on 2013 02 07

Snide?? Just saying what was said from the man himself. Just another politician saying they will do great things and then we are stuck on the master lever. How about we make voting easier for working stiffs. Multiple days, weekends etc... Master lever? give me a break.

Comment #7 by tom brady on 2013 02 07

Tom, is it not possible that Mr. Block has already submitted ideas and information regarding the elimination of fraud in our social services programs but our illustrious leaders have failed to act on it for whatever reason?

Comment #8 by Patrick Boyd on 2013 02 07

The confusion is placement. Put the master ballot question at the end.

Comment #9 by Petr Petrovich on 2013 02 07

Patrick, yes it is. With no affiliations, why wouldn't he let us know that? I'd be much more interested in that than the magic lever.

Comment #10 by tom brady on 2013 02 07

Yes, Rhode Island!

Scrap the Master Lever once and for all!

No more one-party rule!

While you're at it, demand an initiative process, then open primaries, where the top two vote getters proceed to the general election, and then set up a Citizens Redistricting Commission!

School choice will shake up the schools, and a right-to-work state will break the bondage of the public sector unions in Providence!

Go, Rhode Island, Go!

Comment #11 by Arthur Schaper on 2013 02 18

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