Every now and then long-suffering Rhode Islanders can smile and say “Way to go!” at an action taken by our legislature. I’m referring to past actions such as simplifying the tax code, passage of pension reform, and approval of same sex marriage as examples. Because such actions by the legislature don’t happen that often, it’s even sweeter when they occasionally do.
Such is the case with the swift and stunning House actions to not only vote the long imprisoned master level bill out of committee but then to bring it to a full vote, where it passed unanimously.
Rhode Islanders have been complaining and agitating about the master lever for years now, but to no avail. It’s come to personify our elected leaders’ intransigence and unwillingness to listen to public opinion. As a result, the master lever is but one more symbol of why Rhode Island doesn’t work: politicians of the dominant party and their special interests own the playing field and they are not going to let go. For years the master lever benefited Republicans; for a long time now it’s been a tool of the Democrats.
Last year the anti-master lever movement finally found its voice, yet once again the bills to abolish this relic of machine politics never saw the light of day in either chamber. As an employer and concerned public citizen who spent his own money to rouse Rhode Islanders and address the Democrat legislative leadership on this issue in 2013, it was dispiriting to see the total lack of reaction.
Despite my efforts and Ken Block’s website that garnered over 5,000 petition signatures, it was like confronting a brick wall. But Ken and I, along with the state’s major paper and good government organizations, obviously did make an impression and gave hope to our fellow citizens that the fight had to continue.
With the issue revitalized, a fresh leadership change in the House suddenly and unexpectedly broke the chains that had been placed on the call to abolish the master lever. Now the issue moves to the Senate where the Judiciary Committee voted 6-2 last month to hold it for further study, which is tantamount to killing it once again. Now all focus is on the Senate to see if the House’s passage of its version of the bill will change the dynamic. Now that the issue is finally in motion, it certainly should. It does not require any further study. The Senate Judiciary Committee should revisit the master lever bill and let it be voted out of committee. Once that is accomplished a swift vote by the Senate should follow.
One thing that recent debate on the master lever has forced some Democrats to reveal is why they have so steadfastly preferred to ignore the will of the people by clinging to the straight party vote: former state Senator Joanne Giannini (who now supports abolishment) liked the option when she was in office because she “liked when people voted straight Democrat.” Of course she did, they were voting for her.
State Senator Howard Metts has written that the master lever is of assistance to people in a hurry on election day. And State Senator Donna Nesselbush, who voted to hold the master lever bill for further study and then tried to explain that she was actually in favor of getting rid of it, let the cat out of the bag by confessing that almost half her total votes came from use of the master lever. In fact, more than 23 percent of total voters used it in 2012 with the vast majority of them voting straight Democrat. That’s nearly one-quarter of all voters!
The only thing worse than not voting at all, is voting the straight party option. It’s long past time to level the elections playing field and acknowledge that voters in this state can – and should – be called upon every two years to weigh each candidate individually and take the time to vote their way through the ballot, and not just make a line on the ballot to elect all candidates from a single party.
House Speaker Mattiello is of the opinion, even while voting to abolish the master lever, that doing away with it is a largely symbolic act. Opponents of the master lever beg to differ, for not being able to rely on the lever option could make the difference in some contests. People considering to run as Republicans would take heart in knowing that their opponent – usually an incumbent – could no longer rely on the lever to coast to reelection, and thereby decide to get in the race and run. And fewer votes would be wasted by voters selecting the straight party option, and then invalidating their ballot by making contrary selections.
The master lever has been an impediment to fair elections for way too long in this state, and in service to Democrats it has stoked a sense of arrogance in them as they went about ignoring the will of the people. Now, in an election year no less, the Democrats in the House have demonstrated that they are listening. Now it is time for Senate Democrats to show us they also care about what the public wants.