The General Assembly has approved legislation that will eliminate the “master lever,” or straight-party voting option, on all non-primary Rhode Island elections that will be held after January 1, 2015.
Passed in both chambers were bills sponsored by Rep. K. Joseph Shekarchi (D-Dist. 23, Warwick) and Sen. David E. Bates (R-Dist. 32, Barrington, Bristol, East Providence). The bills (2014-H 8072A and 2014-S 2091A) now go to the governor for his consideration.
“This is a pragmatic solution to what has been a long and persistent controversy,” said Representative Shekarchi. “At a time when more voters consider themselves independent than a member of either traditional party, the master lever has, I believe, outlived its usefulness. Eliminating this option will require candidates for office to reach out to communities and to the voters to make their positions known, as opposed to relying on a party label.”
“When I first came to the Senate 22 years ago, I was asked to co-sponsor legislation to remove the master lever. I did and I co-sponsored it for many years until finally becoming the prime sponsor, as I am again this year, because I believe this is vitally important to good government and a well-informed citizenry,” said Senator Bates. “The elimination of the master lever will enable voters in Rhode Island to concentrate on the qualifications of the candidates. And it will also eliminate some of the unintentional wrong votes that can occur for down-ballot races.”
The legislation also includes a requirement for a “Training and Community Outreach” program. It requires the Secretary of State to conduct training and consultations with the State Board of Elections and local boards of canvassers. It also requires the Secretary of State to conduct community outreach programs throughout the state, including the distribution of materials to state and local libraries.
Rhode Island is one of only 14 states, and the only New England state, to still employ the “master lever,” or straight-party voting, procedure in elections.
According to information obtained from the Secretary of State’s State Library files, the master lever was instituted in Rhode Island in 1935 as part of a law enacted that year allowing the use of voting machines. The first attempt to repeal the law came in 1948.
Co-sponsors of the Shekarchi House bill were Rep. Mia A. Ackerman (D-Dist. 45, Cumberland, Lincoln), Rep. Joseph M. McNamara (D-Dist. 19, Warwick, Cranston), Rep. Doreen Costa (R-Dist. 31, North Kingstown, Exeter) and Rep. Robert E. Craven (D-Dist. 32, North Kingstown).
Among the co-sponsors of the Bates Senate bill were Sen. Dawson Tucker Hodgson (R-Dist. 35, East Greenwich, Narragansett, North Kingstown, South Kingstown), Sen. Dennis L. Algiere (R-Dist. 38, Westerly, Charlestown, South Kingstown), Sen. Marc A. Cote (D-Dist. 24, Woonsocket, North Smithfield) and Sen. Frank Lombardo III (D-Dist. 25, Johnston).
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