Local Features
1:31 pm
Mon January 31, 2011

Majority rules, except when it doesn't

PROVIDENCE, R.I. – The two most powerful Rhode Island statewide politicians - Gov. Lincoln Chafee and Atty. Gen. Peter Kilmartin - were elected with much less than a majority of the vote. What should state government do about this?

Every American school child learns this basic tenet of democracy: Majority rules. Then there is the Rhode Island corollary: Except when it doesn't.

Our state now has two stark examples of what happens when a state's Constitution calls for electing state officials by plurality, rather than a majority. So we have Governor Chafee, who received 36 percent of the vote and Attorney General Kilmartin, who got 43 percent.

In an ideal world, it is obvious that a governor or attorney general should get a majority mandate from voters. But in the immortal words of John Kennedy, ``life is not fair.''

Now, to avoid a repeat of 2010, two Republican state lawmakers, Patricia Morgan of West Warwick and Mike Chippendale of Foster, have proposed changing the state Constitution to require a runoff when no candidate gets at least 50 percent.

On one level this seems like a reasonable solution. Yet maybe this is a time to take a deep breath before we ask voters in a referendum to tamper with our Constitution. One element lawmakers must figure out before going ahead with this proposal is what are the lessons of 2010.

So the question is do the results reflect an aberration due to the unusual landscape of last year's election cycle or is this Rhode Island's New Normal? In the governor's race, Republican-turned-independent Linc Chafee had assets that are generally elusive for independent candidates: campaign money, vast name recognition and a track record as a city mayor and U.S. senator. Last year's governor election also featured Ken Block of the new Moderate Party, a well-financed and aggressive candidate. And there was Democrat Frank Caprio and Republican John Robitaille. The result was a competitive four-way scrum that resembled more a primary than a general election.

For more than a century, plurality winners were not an issue because the two-party system winnowed the serious candidates in Republican and Democratic primaries. That wasn't the case last year.

Other states have runoffs when candidates don't meet a 40 or 50 percent threshold. Louisiana decrees that if no candidate for governor gets 50 percent, a runoff is held in December. In Vermont and Mississippi, the legislature decides a gubernatorial election if no candidate hits 50 percent.

The problem with a runoff, says Secretary of State Ralph Mollis, is that there is usually a big drop in voter turnout for a runoff held after a general election. And given the Democratic Party's historic grip on the General Assembly, Rhode Island Republicans wouldn't want lawmakers deciding a statewide election.

So much focus on what to do when candidates don't get to 50 percent is a distraction from a much deeper ailment of Rhode Island politics: why so many voters stay home on election day. Only about 42 percent of registered voters cast ballots last November.

Before they tinker with the Constitution, maybe Smith Hill lawmakers would do better to think about pragmatic changes that would jump-start voter participation. Jennifer Duffy, the Rhode Island native who is political analyst at the Washington-D.C. Cook Political Report has some good ideas. Duffy notes that Rhode Island makes it harder to vote than many other states. She advocates adopting an early voting system, which is the law in 29 states, and ending party registration, which is the custom in 21 states. Secretary of State Mollis says he is studying early voting and other changes, including eliminating the `master lever' option from state ballots and making it less cumbersome for independents to vote in primaries.

As is the case across the country, our state's voter poor turn-out is a sad commentary on the democracy for which so many Americans have fought and died. We don't want to be the state that held an election and nobody came.

Do you have insight or expertise on this topic? Please email us, we'd like to hear from you. news@wrni.org.