2014-04-24 / Front Page

Master Lever Bill Still Alive in the Senate

By Tom Walsh

Senate President Teresa Paiva Weed, a Newport Democrat, insists that a bill to scrap the so-called “master lever” voting option is not dead.

Asked in an interview with Newport This Week whether the measure was still alive in the Senate, Paiva Weed declared, “Certainly. The majority of legislation has just been heard and most bills have been held for further study except for a few matters that needed immediate attention. So far, very few pieces of legislation have been voted on.”

The Senate leader was asked how she personally views the issue.

“I’m really undecided,” Paiva Weed said. She added that she had not attended the meeting of the Senate Judiciary Committee when that panel voted to “hold the bill for further study.”

“My role as president of the Senate is to keep an open mind,” she said. “We will be getting feedback from the Judiciary Committee and the chairman”. “From there, we will see how best to proceed.” She could not yet predict how the bill would fare on the Senate floor.

Others have taken a position, including General Treasurer Gina Raimondo, Gov. Lincoln Chafee, Lt. Gov. Elizabeth Roberts and Providence Mayor Angel Taveras, all of whom support eliminating the master lever.

The “straight-ticket” option goes back to old-fashioned voting booths, where ballot choices were made by moving small levers next to a voter’s candidates of choice. The master lever enabled one ballot to be cast for an entire slate of candidates. Today, computerized systems have eliminated ballot levers, but not the use of the “master lever” to describe the act of voting for an entire slate of candidates with one stroke of a pen.

Ken Block of Barrington, the former Moderate Party leader who is a Republican candidate for governor this year, has made the subject a cornerstone of his campaign rhetoric. “What is becoming apparent is that since many of our sitting legislators view the master lever as an election advantage to themselves, many are not signing onto the citizen petition calling for its removal.” Block also maintains that studies of the issue outside of Rhode Island show that the lever unbalances elections and causes the disenfranchisement of both voters and candidates, especially in down-ticket races like town council and school committee.

The Providence Journal, in a strongly worded April 13 editorial, said the Senate panel’s vote to hold the master lever bill “was another blow against good people in Rhode Island who have worked strenuously to reform the system.” Further, the newspaper declared, “The ‘lever’ is the means by which a voter, by drawing a single line, can vote for every member of a party up and down an election ballot, regardless of a candidate’s character or qualifications.”

Paiva Weed said that at this point in the legislative session, it is common for bills to be held for further study. She also said that Newport’s local city council and school committee elections are non-partisan– and therefore not affected by master lever voting.

“The matter is much more contentious in cities like Providence, where races are partisan and therefore subject to master lever votes,” she said.

She also contended that Rhode Island’s recent election history suggests that master lever voting may not be as widespread as some would suggest. “In a heavily Democratic state, we have elected Lincoln Almond and Donald Carcieri as governors,” she said. Both men are Republicans. She might also have added that the late U.S. Sen. John H. Chafee was elected to the governorship and to the U.S. Senate as a Republican senator and that his son, current Gov. Lincoln Chafee, who is now a Democrat, was a Republican when first elected to statewide office.

“It’s very clear that people in this state know how to split a ticket,” the Senate president said.

According to Paiva Weed, the master lever issue pales in importance compared with jobs and the economy. “I don’t see this as a significant issue,” she said. “Jobs and the economy—those are very real issues.”

Nevertheless, she said, “The master lever question will continue to be discussed and debated.”

In the House, Rep. Peter Martin, a Democrat and the city’s senior House member, left no question about where he stands. “I think we should get rid of it,” Martin said. “Every vote I get I want to be a vote for Peter Martin, not for a political party. I don’t like the idea of a master lever.”

Return to top