PROVIDENCE, RI -- Legislation to eliminate the so-called “master lever” from Rhode Island ballots could get its first hearing this week.
The House Judiciary Committee is scheduled to consider the bill March 9.
State law currently requires ballots to include the straight-party option, which enables voters to vote for all the candidates of a political party with a single vote.
“The master lever has the potential to inadvertently disenfranchise some voters and causes too many others to question the fairness of their elections. I'm convinced the time has come to take it off the ballot,” said Secretary of State A. Ralph Mollis.
Mollis asked state Rep. Michael Marcello (D-Scituate, Cranston) and state Sen. David Bates (R-Barrington, Bristol) to introduce H 5452 and S 238, which would eliminate the straight-party voting marks from the ballot.
State Representatives Brian Newberry (R-North Smithfield, Burrillville), Joy Hearn (D-Barrington, East Providence), Peter Martin (D-Newport) and Michael Chippendale (R-Foster, Coventry, Glocester) and state Senators William Walaska (D-Warwick), Dennis Algiere (R-Westerly, Charlestown), Mark Cote (D-Woonsocket, North Smithfield) and Louis DiPalma (D- Little Compton, Middletown, Newport, Tiverton) co-sponsored the bills. There are also companion bills that address voting machines.
“While the straight-ticket voting option does make the voting process quicker for some, the controversy surrounding its use has unfairly called into question the legitimacy and fairness of elections. I believe that the elimination of the straight-party lever will finally end the speculation that somehow election outcomes would be different,” said Marcello.
"When voting machines actually had levers, it was easy to see whether you had missed voting in a particular race," said Bates. "Updating the law to reflect how we cast ballots today protects the integrity of the process and does everything we can to ensure that every vote will be counted."
Mollis says Operation Clean Government and Common Cause support the legislation.
"With the old mechanical machines, you could see who you were voting for. With the paper ballot for the optical scan machines, if you connect an arrow in a local race, you have canceled out your straight party vote in that race and you will not know this has happened. Over the past two years, we could not find a single person, poll worker, town council member or board of canvasser member who knew that votes were being discarded by the optical scan machine,” said Margaret Kane, Operation Clean Government president.
If the legislation passes, Jamestown voters are expected to be the first to use the revised ballot when they go to polls Nov. 8 to fill two school committee seats.
The master lever has been required since 1939, when the Republican-controlled General Assembly enacted the law. The term dates from the days when voting machines required voters to physically push a series of levers to vote for individual candidates or one "master" lever to vote for an entire political ticket.
Although those voting machines were replaced in 1998 by the optical scanners that are used today, the law still requires all ballots to include the option of voting for all the candidates of a single political party with one vote.
Despite wide-spread attempts to educate voters about how to use the straight-party option, including printing instructions on the ballot and mailing guides to every residential household in Rhode Island before statewide general elections, there is evidence that suggests there is still some voter confusion.
For example, just 14,244 votes were cast in the non-partisan contest for the East Providence City Council At-Large seat last November, while races at the top of the ballot such as U.S. Representative and Governor recorded more than 15,550 votes.
Based on those so-called "under votes" in down-ticket races, it appears that some straight-party voters may not realize they also have to mark their ballots in non-partisan races and races in which they may vote for more than one candidate such as school committees and municipal councils.
“While tens of thousands of voters do use the straight-party option, we cannot sacrifice even one person's vote at the altar of convenience,” said Mollis.
In 2010, just 13 percent of voters used the straight-ticket option -- down sharply from more than 20 percent in 2008 and 2006.
Last November, the Democratic ticket received 27,499 straight-party votes, while the GOP tallied 11,747 and the Moderate Party received 6,422.
Early in his first term Mollis had opposed eliminating the master lever, citing the large proportion of voters who used it, but his position evolved over time.
In 2008, his Voters First Advisory Commission endorsed legislation calling for a non-binding statewide referendum on the future of straight-party voting.
By the time U.S. District Court Judge William Smith struck down a challenge to Rhode Island’s straight-party law last September, Mollis was testifying about what he saw as the master lever's shortcomings.
"As Secretary of State my priority is making it easier to vote, but as time went on I became convinced the negatives outweighed the positives and the time has come to eliminate the master lever," said Mollis.
Secretary of State Mollis is committed to making it easier to vote, helping businesses grow and making government more open and accessible. For more information about the programs and services the Secretary of State offers Rhode Islanders, visit sos.ri.gov.