The inconvenient master lever truth

May 20, 2014

Providence is Rhode Island’s most diverse municipality. The capital city is home to just about every segment of  Rhode Island’s rich ethnic, racial and socio-economic  mix.

Thus Providence is a reliable prism through which to view the never-ending debate over the master lever. What the data show is that the some of the proponents of abolishing it have, as  Ricky Riccardo used to say to Lucy on the old Lucille Balll Show, ``some 'splanin to do.’’

The attached table of master lever voting in Providence and some North Providence House of Representatives precincts shows that voters are neither predictable, lazy or stupid. This data also shatters the stereotype, advanced by Republican gubernatorial aspirant Ken Block, that straight party voting is largely the province of poor, inner-city voters who live in neighborhoods  represented by Sen. Harold Metts, D-Providence, the legendary Central High School basketball coach who is also the  Senate’s lone African-American lawmaker.

What the master lever numbers, gleaned from state voting records via former State Rep. Ray Rickman, who represented  East Side neighborhoods, including Benefit Street and College Hill, show is that master lever voting changes from election cycle to election cycle. This data also shows vividly that while master lever voting is higher is less affluent neighborhoods, straight party voting is also widely used in some elections in districts where voters are some of Rhode Island’s  most highly educated and wealthiest voters.

You may not like the politics of these voters; most of them vote Democratic. But it would be ludicrous to assert that voters living in the East Side districts represented by Edie Ajello, Chris Blazejewski and former Speaker Gordon Fox are dumb or uninformed. The numbers are at the bottom of this post.

The master lever statistics show that in 2010, less than seven percent of voters in the East Side’s District 3 used the straight party option. Yet in 2012, a whopping 63 percent in that neighborhood percent cast straight party votes. How to explain this? Without empirical research, such as exit polling results, it isn’t possible to read the minds of voters.

But it is likely that in 2010 East Side voters declined the master lever to cast ballots for independent Lincoln Chafee, who was running for governor. The fulcrum of Chafee’s victory was Providence voters who gave him more than 50 percent of their votes. By contrast, Chafee won considerably less than 40 percent in the other 38 Rhode Island communities.

But in 2012, this same voter pool used the straight party voting option overwhelmingly in the presidential election cycle, when President Barack Obama was atop the Democratic ticket and Republicans fielded what these voters must have considered a lackluster field of candidates.

It is a fact that voters in the poorer neighborhoods of South Providence and Elmwood are more consistent users of straight ticket voting than most of the affluent neighborhoods. Yet, even in those districts, straight party voting swings significantly from election to election. An example is District 11 on the South Side, a heavily Latino voting neighborhood represented by Grace Diaz. In 2010, that district sported a straight party voting rate of about 41 percent. In 2012, that same district used the master lever option at a rate of nearly 66 percent.

In the current debate raging at the Statehouse and spilling over the op-ed pages, the master lever is depicted as a relic of Rhode Island’s urban political machine past, a voting route taken by poorly educated and lazy citizens. What these numbers show is that isn’t true.

The most honest brokers in the campaign to get rid of straight party voting are Republicans, such as state GOP Chairman Mark Smiley, who is candid about his motives: he and his fellow Republican activists want to usher more two-party balance into Rhode Island elections and loosen the Democratic Party’s grip on the General Assembly. That’s a fine and honest sentiment; political parties exist to win elections.

But as Rickman points out, there is no excuse for the intellectually dishonest arguments of many in Rhode Island’s government reform movements and some in the major media outlets. ``The voters are more thoughtful than people think,’’ says Rickman.

He points to the 2006 U.S. Senate election, when then-Republican Chafee lost to Democrat Sheldon Whitehouse. Public opinion polling showed that voters liked Chafee and approved of the job he had done. What they didn’t like was Chafee’s party and its leader, then-President George W. Bush, he of Iraq War infamy.

``People liked Chafee but they voted against him to keep the Republicans from  controlling  the Senate,’’ said Rickman.

There is also the possibility that banning straight party voting is just another form of voter suppression cloaked in the language of reform.

Maybe the reform groups should be a bit more careful when they state that those who use the straight party ballot option are confused, not very smart or lazy. As the data shows, those voters in some elections are just as likely to live on Blackstone Boulevard, Benefit Street or College Hill as they are on Broad Street, Elmwood Avenue or Pocasset Avenue. NOTE: The House districts were renumbered in reapportionment that was approved in 2012. For example, between 2010 and 2012, changes were made that changed the numbering of districts represented by Rep. Edie Ajello, D-Providence, and Thomas Palangio, D-Providence. But the overall thrust of the post remains true; the renumbering is a minor blip that doesn't change the thesis of this post. Thanks to Rep. Ajello and Sam Bell, state coordinator for R.I. Progressive Democrats for pointing this out.

Here is the voting data: