Eliminating master-lever voting no panacea for RI

Feb 14, 2013

Just about every good government group in Rhode Island is pushing for an end to the so-called master lever option on state ballots. RIPR political analyst Scott MacKay explains why this is not a panacea for what ails our state’s political culture.

It has become an article of faith in Rhode Island among the self-styled government reform groups, most statewide elected politicians and the chattering pundit classes that our state needs to get rid of that relic of urban machine politics, the master lever.

Never mind that the lever isn’t even a lever any more. It was called the master lever when we cast ballots on boxy metal voting machines that enclosed the voter behind a curtain. With one flick of a lever at the top of the machine, a voter could vote a straight party ticket, without having to bother to click the levers next to the names of each individual candidate.

When the state switched from the voting machines to marking boxes on paper ballots, the master lever legacy survived as a single box on the ballot. Thus, a  voter who desired to vote straight Democratic or straight Republican could do so by drawing a line connecting  just one box, thus eliminating the need to go down the ballot and checking  each individual box next to a candidate name.

The list of those supporting an end to the master box, that one-size fits all of electioneering, is long. It includes Gov. Lincoln Chafee, Lt. Gov. Elizabeth Roberts, Secretary of State Ralph Mollis, General Treasurer Gina Raimondo, Ken Block, founder of the Moderate Party, and Democratic State Chairman Edwin Pacheco.

Block has been the most vocal, and for good reason. The future of his fledgling party depends on luring voters away from Rhode Island’s traditional two-party fixation. Ditto for Chafee, who was once a Republican but won election to the State House as an independent in 2010.

Block has some decent arguments. Allowing voters to check one box and vote for all candidates of a single party makes for lazy voters. It especially hurts independent and third-party candidates for such down ballot offices as town council and school committee. And it wreaks havoc with non-partisan elections in some communities for school committee.

So who does the system help? Not surprisingly, General Assembly Democrats, who benefit, particularly during presidential elections, when a voter checks the Democratic Party box at the top of a ticket headed by a Democratic presidential candidate, who usually wins in our cobalt blue state. A striking number of Rhode Islanders use the straight party , including more than 100,000 voters in the 2012 election. So getting rid of the master box has become a proxy for the unelected elites and the business community to protest the Democratic grip on the Assembly.

Providence Journal editorial columnist Edward Achorn says ending it will lead to more competitive elections and a better economy.

It all sounds great. In a civics-book political culture, things might change. But don’t be surprised if we get rid of the master box and nothing much happens. First off, Rhode Islanders have long been ticket splitters when voters believe they have candidates worth crossing party lines for. This has been the case for eons. In 1964, Democratic presidential candidate Lyndon Johnson carried Rhode Island in a tsunami of a landslide. That year Republican John Chafee was comfortably elected governor. In 1972, Republican Richard Nixon won Rhode Island’s presidential vote, but Democratic U.S. Sen. Claiborne Pell won an easy reelection.

Rhode Island has not voted Republican in a presidential election since the Ronald Regan 1984 landslide. Yet our state has not elected a Democratic governor since Bruce Sundlun’s 1992 reelection.

As far as the economy goes, well, Rhode Island’s economy was far better off when we were a 20th century manufacturing powerhouse and our politics were far more partisan than today. The same unelected leaders and pundits who are pushing and end to the master box told us that such changes as the Separation of Powers Constitutional Amendment that was designed to curb Assembly prerogatives and four-year terms for governor would lead to political change. That hasn’t happened.

Here’s why: No change in the conduct of elections can decisively alter a state’s political culture. Ending the straight-party voting option won’t create a viable two-party system or lead apathetic citizens to suddenly take an interest in government.

Political change has come to the Assembly in recent elections. The House, in particular, has become more liberal. This has occurred because progressive Democrats and their labor union allies have recruited good candidates and vigorously contested conservative Democrats in primaries, where there is no straight-party voting. If you wonder why the House so overwhelmingly approved same-sex marriage this year, just look at the candidates who have won Democratic primaries in the last few election cycles.

It's going to take more than eliminating the master lever to help voters and increase turnout. This includes early voting, getting rid of voter identification and ensuring that citizens don’t have to stand in long lines to perform the basic duty of a democracy. Oh, and changing the primaries from September to May or June.

So get rid of straight-party voting. Just don’t expect anything to change.

As even Ken Block says: ``It isn’t going to solve the problems in the Republican Party either locally or nationally.’’