Let's End the Master Lever

Ed Achorn of the Providence Journal has been hammering away for some time against the master lever, which allows single party voting across the slate of candidates for all offices, which in this state means Democrats. This is one of his strongest comments to date against the lever, and he reveals that even some union bosses are now against it.

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Edward Achorn: Corrupt lever’s fan base shrinks

01:00 AM EDT on Tuesday, July 27, 2010


The General Assembly’s leaders, House Speaker Gordon Fox and Senate President Teresa Paiva Weed, wouldn’t listen to their constituents who called for an end to the master lever, that legacy of corrupt machine politics of a century ago.

They wouldn’t listen to virtually every government-reform group in Rhode Island.

They wouldn’t listen to the state Board of Elections, whose job it is to oversee fair elections.

They wouldn’t listen to the Rhode Island Association of City and Town Clerks and Canvassers.

They wouldn’t listen to the many city and town councils that passed resolutions pleading for an end to the master lever — those of Barrington, Charlestown, Coventry, East Providence, Exeter, Glocester, Hopkinton, Jamestown, Lincoln, Little Compton, Middletown, Newport, New Shoreham, North Kingstown, North Smithfield, Portsmouth, Richmond, Scituate, Smithfield, Tiverton, Warren, West Greenwich and Woonsocket. (Westerly voters passed a local question in 2007 in favor of ending the master lever.)

They wouldn’t listen to Governor Carcieri.

They wouldn’t listen to every candidate to succeed him as governor, except one holdout for the lever — Atty. Gen. Patrick Lynch, the Democratic hopeful who proved so unpopular he had to bail out of the race this month.

None of these people or groups was important enough to prod legislative leaders to do the right thing for Rhode Island and remove the lever, which permits mindless or manipulated voters to make one mark and automatically vote for every candidate of a single party on the ballot.

That device, which the vast majority of states do not permit, undermines fair elections. It tilts the field against independents and minority-party candidates, particularly in lower-profile races such as for the General Assembly. It props up a corrupt status quo by severely discouraging challengers. It confuses voters, who may not understand that it may disenfranchise them in nonpartisan elections. It is a big reason that one party holds 92 percent of the seats in the House, fueling complacency toward and contempt for the public.

But perhaps they will listen now to the special interests that seem to have the loudest voices on Smith Hill — the public-employee unions.

For weeks, union bosses have been hinting off the record that they would not oppose removing the master lever. Last week, Robert Walsh, the well-compensated executive director of the National Education Association Rhode Island, came out publicly and said he supports removing the lever.

I know what you’re thinking: If those guys support it, it must be bad for Rhode Island.

What it may say is this: The master lever is contributing to a legislature that is so unbalanced that even special interests are finding it hard to play a decisive enough role in elections to keep legislators fully enslaved to their will.

Or maybe these lobbyists would benefit by having coalitions fighting each other at budget time. If a speaker has a harder time cobbling together enough votes, lobbyists can become more powerful brokers, trading budget votes for laws to their liking, such as binding arbitration or perpetual contracts.

Or maybe the unions are engaging in a classic diversionary tactic — trying to look public-spirited in one area, while vying to loot the taxpayers in another.

Whatever the reason, the union chiefs will surely be welcomed into the reform camp.

The constituency for the corrupting lever seems to be shrinking by the day. A dwindling number of party hacks and politicians are manning the barricades against motivated reformers.

State Sen. Lou Raptakis, positioning himself as the reform Democratic candidate for secretary of state, is making hay of the issue, including at a debate last week with incumbent Ralph Mollis, who still supports the lever while admitting it is flawed.

“I don’t understand why the incumbent, who is supposed to be working to make it easier for individuals to vote, is clinging to this outdated article of machine-party politics, which, by his own admission, creates widespread confusion amongst voters,” Senator Raptakis said in a statement after the debate.

All this pressure could eventually push Rhode Island into a modern era of vibrant and fair elections, something that would contribute to a better-informed and more fully engaged constituency, greater competition and a more responsive General Assembly.

The question is: How long can the current leaders defend a dismal status quo and defy the will of so many Rhode Islanders?

Edward Achorn is The Journal’s deputy editorial-pages editor ( eachorn@projo.com).