Rhode Island Poised to Eliminate Straight-Ticket Voting


[Image courtesy of texastribune]

Back in January 2013 I wrote about how two states, Rhode Island and New Hampshire, were moving in different directions on whether to allow voters to cast a straight-party ballot.

A year and a half later, New Hampshire still doesn’t have it – but soon neither will Rhode Island, as the state looks poised to eliminate the so-called “master lever” on state ballots. The Providence Journal has more as the state legislative session winds down:

Final votes earlier in the day sent some bills to the governor to be signed into law, among them: the closely watched — and highly symbolic — repeal of the so-called “master lever” that allows a vote for every candidate on a political party’s slate with a single mark on a ballot.

This straight-party voting option has been credited — and blamed — for the Democratic party’s dominance of the state’s congressional delegation, General Assembly and top state offices. The option will be gone after January 1, 2015.

“This is decades in the making,” said John Marion, executive director of Common Cause Rhode Island. “It’s amazing to finally see it happen after it’s been around so long, but it really does show … an organized group of people can affect change when they bring both numbers and facts to bear on an issue.”

Sponsored in the house by Rep. K. Joseph Shekarchi, D-Warwick, and in the Senate by Sen. David E. Bates, R-Barrington, the legislation now goes to the governor to be inked into law.

The two houses had disagreed on the timing of the change, with the House favoring immediate repeal, but ultimately acceded to the wishes of the Senate which sought to delay the change past this fall’s elections.

While the repeal was widely supported, it wasn’t unanimous; an earlier Journal story on the Senate debate captured some of the disagreement from master lever supporters:

“I’m very happy. One more thing off my plate,” said Sen. David Bates, R-Barrington, who sponsored the Senate bill and has been sponsoring or cosponsoring it since 1993.

Bates and other supporters said abolishing the so-called “master lever” option — so named because of the levers that were once present on voting machines — will eliminate confusion and encourage people to think about who they are voting for.
But two senators spoke against the bill.

Sen. Harold Metts, D-Providence, cited numbers that show roughly two-thirds of his constituents used the “master lever” during the last election.

“Everybody’s entitled to their opinion, so are my constituents,” he said.

Senate Majority Leader Dominick Ruggerio, D-North Providence, said he has received “a great number of calls from constituents … mostly elderly” who want the option to remain.

“I don’t believe that they should be disenfranchised,” he said. “This is an option that we’re removing, and I think it’s going to decrease the number of people that are going to come out and vote.”

Bates disagreed.

“Disenfranchise is a big word,” he said. “It doesn’t disenfranchise anybody.”

Once the bill is signed, as it appears it will be, the next challenge will be to educate voters – and redesign ballots and other materials to reflect the new approach. I, for one, would be fascinated to see how the students at the Rhode Island School of Design handle the challenge, given their good work on other materials in state elections. While political observers will no doubt want to evaluate the partisan impact of the repeal, I’d also be interested to see if spoiled ballots and under/overvotes rise in the wake of the change.

Either way, I’m confident this isn’t the end of the story; “little” changes like this almost always end up leaving a slightly longer wake than expected.

Stay tuned!

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