This one was a long time in coming. After decades of setbacks, opponents of the “master lever” watched with delight Tuesday as a legislative committee did what perhaps no committee had done before: Send a bill that would abolish the master lever to the House floor. The House Judiciary Committee voted unanimously to pass the bill, which removes the “master-lever” or “straight-ticket” voting option from election ballots and requires the secretary of state’s office to provide training and “community outreach” to make sure voters understand the option will no longer be there. The vote followed more than 90 minutes of testimony from dozens of speakers, many of them repeats from past hearings in past years, where bills to abolish the master lever were held for further study. In the end, that only made the outcome — which sets the stage for a full House vote on Thursday — more pleasing. “To have it voted out of committee unanimously, you know, I’ve got to lie down and put a cool cloth on my head,” said Margaret Kane, president of Operation Clean Government, a group that by her count has been urging passage for about 20 years. “It’s the first time we’ve had reason to hope.”
The arguments echoed those of past hearings, with master-lever opponents saying the straight-ticket voting option encourages voter laziness, favors Democrats in a heavily Democratic state and creates confusion, with many voters failing to understand what it means when they draw a line to vote for candidates in one party.
John Marion, executive director of Common Cause Rhode Island, cited a National Science Foundation-funded study that concluded straight-ticket voting options really do cause voter confusion. Ken Block, founder of the now-defunct Moderate Party and a Republican candidate for governor, said 8,000 Rhode Island voters cast “master-lever” votes for the Moderate Party in 2012 in cities and towns where the party had no candidates on the ballot.
Once accomplished with the pull of a lever, the straight-ticket option now works with the stroke of a pen, allowing a voter to choose all the candidates in a single party.