Scott MacKay Commentary: RI Master Lever Myths

May 15, 2014

Eliminating the master lever in Rhode Island elections is picking up steam in the General Assembly. RIPR political analyst  Scott MacKay says getting rid of straight party voting may be much ado about not much.

State lawmakers have been fighting over the master lever for years, but how much does it really matter?
Credit Kristin Gourlay / RIPR

The Rhode Island House of Representatives recently voted unanimously to end the so-called master lever, a relic of the state’s urban political machine past. A conga line of statewide elected politicians, from Gov. Lincoln Chafee down to Secretary of State Ralph Mollis, support this change.

Good government groups and Rhode Island’s beleaguered Republican Party have been campaigning vigorously to curb straight party ballots. And many in the media, especially the editorial pages of the Providence Journal, have been on a crusade to scuttle it.

The master level isn’t even a lever anymore. It was a dubbed the master lever when voters cast ballots in those big boxy metal voting machines that were enclosed in a thick curtain to maintain privacy. With one flick of a lever at the top of the machine, a voter could cast a straight party ticket, without having to click the levers next to the names of each individual candidate.

When the state junked the machines for paper ballots that were counted with supermarket-style scanners, straight party voting survived as a single box at the top of the ballot. Thus, a voter who wanted to vote an all Republican or Democratic ticket could do so by drawing a line connecting one box, which eliminates the need to go all the way down the ballot and checking each individual box next to a candidate name.

Proponents of abolishing the straight party option say it will end voter confusion and require that those casting ballots take the time to more carefully consider down ballot candidates and referenda questions. Republican State Chairman Mark Smiley has a more self-interested reason – he thinks it will make the GOP more competitive.  Elimination of this option will ``restore a more balanced two-party system in Rhode Island,’’ says Smiley.

Others make more elaborate claims, asserting that repeal would end government corruption and usher in a better economy.

Proponents of repeal are correct about one element: Rhode Island is out of synch with national trends on this issue. Just 14 states still allow straight party voting. They range from our cobalt blue state to such red state conservative redoubts as Texas, South Carolina and Kentucky.

Yet it is hard to see how abolishing the master lever will lead to either political change or act as a remedy for the low voter turnout that plagues our state and most others. Without comprehensive changes, the master lever issue won’t mean much.

Why isn’t the Assembly exploring options that would make elections more accessible to citizens who lead busy lives but want to participate in government? That would mean offering early voting, which other states have adopted, or same-day voter registration, which would also expand the franchise.

And how about doing something about those long lines at the polls, especially in urban districts. There is nothing to discourage a voter like standing for an hour outside a polling booth on a chilly November night.

The Assembly could also do a serious study of the state’s voter identification law, a solution groping for a problem if there ever was one.

Politics doesn’t play by the rules of civics books and Common Cause of Rhode Island. So don’t be surprised if we get rid of straight party voting and nothing much changes. Rhode Islanders have been ticket splitters forever. In 1964, Democratic presidential candidate Lyndon Johnson won the state in an avalanche of a landslide. That same year, Republican John Chafee was easily reelected governor. In 1972, Republican Richard Nixon carried the state’s presidential vote, but Democratic U.S. Sen.  Claiborne Pell was comfortably reelected.

The Ocean State has not gone Republican in a presidential campaign  since Ronald Reagan’s 49-state sweep in 1984. Yet we haven’t elected a Democratic governor since Bruce Sundlun won in 1992.

As for corruption, well, if you think Rhode Island has been corrupt since the master lever was enacted a half-century ago, you need a history lesson. Our state was much more corrupt before machine straight party voting, when Progressive Era Journalist Lincoln Steffens famously wrote in 1904 that Rhode Island was a ``state for sale and cheap.’’

In those days, we were a one-party state run by Yankee Republicans who ruled by establishing property qualifications for voting and by rigging legislative reapportionment so that South County farmers held more sway than urban factory workers.

As for the economy, Rhode Island flourished as a manufacturing powerhouse both before and after institution of the master lever.

Republicans think this change will make for two-parity parity in a state with an overwhelming Democratic majority on Smith Hill. Yet, they need to recruit competitive  candidates, which has not happened in recent years. All over New England, voters are saying no to a Republican Party that has been captured by the sunbelt, the Tea Party and the states of the Old Confederacy. There is not one Republican U.S. House member today representing any New England state.

The master lever ball is now in the state senate’s court. There is pressure on Senate President Teresa Paiva Weed to allow a vote on elimination. So  straight party voting may well be sent to the dustbin of history.  But voters shouldn’t expect that to change much of anything at the Statehouse.

Scott MacKay's commentary can be heard every Monday at 6:35 and 8:35 on Morning Edition and at 5:50 on All Things Considered at 5:50. You can also follow his political analysis and reporting at our `On Politics' blog at