Ken Block: The Master Lever Challenge to RI Legislators

Wednesday, February 06, 2013


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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

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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

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


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