Ocean State: Pulling the master lever

by John Perilli

The “master lever,” or the straight-ticket voting option, is a remnant from the smoky era of machine politics, when massive urban political organizations gave out patronage jobs in exchange for votes. These organizations have long since disbanded, yet the arrow to vote a single party for all offices has stayed at the top of Rhode Island’s ballot. We are one of only 16 states nationwide to maintain this practice, and now Ken Block, chairman of the Moderate Party of Rhode Island, wants it eliminated once and for all.

“The best academic evidence indicates that when voters use the master lever, their true preferences for candidates and parties are not realized,” Block contends on the front page of his website, masterlever.org. “The time is now to eliminate the master lever and bring Rhode Island elections into the 21st century.”

Block’s petition has been gaining steam among high-ranking Rhode Island politicians, and recently received the stamp of approval from Secretary of State Ralph Mollis, the most powerful state-level official in charge of elections. Good government groups including Common Cause and the Rhode Island Statewide Coalition have gotten behind it as well, but neither Speaker of the House Gordon Fox (D-Providence) nor Senate President Teresa Paiva-Weed (D-Newport and Jamestown) have spoken up yet on either side.

One nagging problem that Block argues his measure will solve is “under-voting.” Many local offices are officially nonpartisan, so pulling the master switch will not cast a vote for any of these candidates. Thus, nonpartisan races suffer from a shortage of votes, and become less democratic. Some races also involve voting for multiple candidates. The master lever misses these as well.

Another office the master lever sometimes neglects is a bit higher up — the presidency. In North Carolina, the option to vote straight-ticket did not include a vote for President, stirring confusion and anger among voters. While ballots are ideally as self-explanatory as possible, voter confusion can still be a problem when the process is complex or counterintuitive. Disenchantment follows, and registered voters stay home. While this was not a problem in Rhode Island, the same issues of confusion arise with any straight-ticket system, and voters may be discouraged from going to the ballot box.

The most obvious issue the master lever creates is that it allows people to vote without knowing whom they’re voting for. If a person votes straight-ticket because, for example, they agree with their party’s presidential candidate, they may vote for partisans who don’t stand with their party on everything. The lower you go on the political totem pole, the less party identification means, and the master lever makes it easy to vote for candidates you might not agree with at all.

Despite Block’s seemingly straightforward arguments, though, this issue is hardly cut-and-dried. According to Block’s website, more state legislators have come out in opposition to the master lever than in support, but the overwhelming majority are still mum on the subject. When heads are counted, the overall reaction will likely be lukewarm at best. Local Democrats caught a strong tailwind from President Obama this past election, so don’t expect them to fray the coattails effect without a fight.

Some of the comments against the master lever imply that the people who use it are uninformed or looking for an easy shortcut. Even if this is true, then why will eliminating it make elections somehow more accurate or voters more engaged? Party identification, even among those officially unaffiliated, is by far is the strongest predictor of voting behavior. If people want to vote straight Democrat, or Republican, or Moderate, they will do it anyway. While split-ticket voting may become more common and independents and nonpartisans may see a small uptick in votes, people will generally not be much more informed. In fact, all else equal, it will just be more difficult to vote without the master lever, which could discourage more voters than the existing system already does.

There is some space for compromise here. The guidelines for straight-ticket voting could be made more explicit, including boldfaced warnings for non-partisan elections, ballot measures, and multi-office races (e.g. “Vote for 2 Candidates”). Each individual race could be marked as to whether or not it is covered by the straight-ticket vote. The master-lever question may seem as simple as dusting away cobwebs from an age gone by, but this past November over 100,000 Rhode Island voters cast straight-ticket ballots. Ken Block and his eventual opposition must both be wary. The issue is not to be underestimated.


photo by Shealah Craighead/SarahPAC