House Judiciary Committee Votes to Kill the Master Lever

Apr 29, 2014

Judiciary Chairman Cale Keable reads into the record the names of master lever repeal supporters who left before they had a chance to testify.
Credit Ian Donnis / RIPR

After years of opposition have failed to yield a response, the House Judiciary Committee voted Tuesday evening to this year eliminate the use in Rhode Island of the master lever.

Critics have complained for decades that the master lever is outdated, confuses voters, and offers an advantage to the Democrats who rule the General Assembly.

In what could be an early win for Speaker Nicholas Mattiello, the full House is slated to vote on the issue Thursday. Similar legislation has yet to emerge from the Senate Judiciary Committee or be scheduled for a full Senate vote.

House Judiciary passed a bill introduced by Representative Joseph Shekarchi (D-Warwick), a supporter of Mattiello, after it was amended to eliminate straight ticket voting this year, rather than in 2016. A bill introduced by Representative Michael Marcello (D-Scituate), Mattiello's rival for the speakership last month, would also have eliminated straight ticket voting this year, but it wasn't taken up by the committee.

Supporters of the master lever phase-out -- including Republican gubernatorial candidate Ken Block -- called the House Judiciary Committee's vote a sign of a new direction.

"What this is, is a substantial and significant step forward," Block told reporters after the vote. "It moves us from the dark ages of voting, it makes us much more like the majority of the rest of the country in terms of how states allow their ballots to be used. And it’s an important signal that we’re willing to make change in this state, necessary change."

Before the vote, a procession of citizens and local officials implored the Judiciary Committee to kill straight party voting. Some called the issue an indicator of whether Mattiello really supports change.

Only one citizen among the more than 20 who testified, an elderly woman from East Providence, supported retaining the master lever. She questioned if the master lever really offers an edge to Democrats, noting how Cranston and Warwick have Republican mayors and how Rhode Island voters haven't elected a Democratic governor since 1992.