The time for the Master Lever has passed – if there ever was one. It’s time to take it out of our election process – but your voice needs to be heard.
The “Master Lever” is a political habit we backed into. (Call it “master lever” or straight-party voting – it’s the same thing). In the early days of political parties, it was nearly impossible not to vote on a straight party line basis; ballots were printed on colored paper, a different color for each party. With the advent of modern voting machines in the 1880s, colored ballots were replaced by a single button, or lever, that allowed a voter to cast a vote for the candidates of a single party. That mechanism has never disappeared in Rhode Island.
The fairness and corruption problems associated with straight party voting notwithstanding, the arguments for a master lever fall aside when more than two or so parties are involved.
Using the master lever to vote for a party fielding a partial slate of candidates results in votes not being cast for some offices. And applying the master lever as it is done in Rhode Island means many third-party candidates and virtually all candidates in non-partisan races go un-voted for – even though the voter is convinced he voted in every race. But that’s not the way it works.
Rhode Island remains in the minority here, one of only 16 states still caught up in straight-ticket voting. But the wave of change is building: legislation prohibiting the master lever is under consideration in three states (Rhode Island, Iowa and Indiana), and five others (Missouri, New Mexico, Texas, Utah and New Hampshire) are considering changes involving straight-ticket voting procedures.
Rhode Island legislation provides the clearest action – elimination of straight-party voting – in H-5072 (which I have co-sponsored together with Democratic Representatives Marcello, Hearn and Hull, and Republican Minority Leader Brian Newberry), and S-44, sponsored by Republican Senator David Bates of Barrington.
Rejecting master lever voting makes sense. It reinforces the already-strong (and increasingly dysfunctional) power of incumbency. It requires no voter to investigate or consider carefully the candidates before them. It is a key driver of one-party government. It disenfranchises voters wishing to vote for third-party and nonpartisan candidates, or those who focus more on the candidate and less on the party.
There is a growing chorus favoring its elimination. Governor Chafee, Lt. Governor Roberts, Secretary of State Mollis, State Treasurer Gina Raimondo, the R.I. Board of Elections, Moderate Party founder Ken Block, Common Cause, every Republican member of the RI House and Senate – and many thoughtful Democrats – are all on board.
But we are not enough – House Speaker Gordon Fox and Senate President Teresa Paiva Weed need to be convinced that there is a significant public benefit served if this is to happen.
If you think the master lever and straight-ticket voting has outlived its usefulness as I do, let them know your views. Login to masterlever.org, learn more abut the issue, and find out who else from your community has signed on. Then, scroll to the bottom of the page and send a letter to those who control the destiny of this important legislation.
It’s very easy and takes five minutes. Your voice needs to be heard. And on this issue, it can.
State Representative Anthony Giarrusso was elected to his first term in November, 2012. His district, House 30, covers East Greenwich and the southeast portion of West Greenwich.