“Confusion,” is the word Senator Stephen Archambault used to describe what sold him on Ken Block’s campaign to do away with the master lever.
Archambault (D-Smithfield, North Providence, Johnston) is a member of the Senate Judiciary Committee that heard testimony Tuesday on legislation that would remove the ability of voters to cast their votes for the candidates of a single party with a single stroke of a pen. The term “master lever” dates to 1948 when legislators approved a lever for mechanical voting machines enabling one vote for all candidates of the same party.
“Confusion is your strongest argument,” Archambault said after Block, founder of the Moderate Party and its candidate for governor in 2010, testified. “You’ve done a good job with it.”
In an interview outside the hearing room, Block said a majority of the House have endorsed elimination of the master lever and that he is one senator shy of a tie in the Senate. He said that nine of the 13-member House Judiciary Committee favor elimination of the master lever while in the Senate committee his count [as of Tuesday] was four for and six uncommitted.
While the count is important if the measure is to gain approval this year, Block said he won’t stop his campaign and he’ll be back next year should it fail.
“Do they want this in an election year?” Block asked of legislators. He thinks not, as he believes voters favor elimination of the lever and they’re likely to remember that at the polls.
And Block didn’t have kind words for the Warwick City Council that rejected a resolution calling for elimination of the lever 7-2. “It was highly disappointing,” he said.
Block based his argument on an examination of votes cast in Burrillville in the 2010 election, as well as statewide in 2012. In Burrillville, he said 118 master lever votes were cast for the Moderate Party, of which the party only got 18. That happened because after selecting the Moderate Party, the voter continued down the ballot and cast ballots for candidates not in the Moderate Party. That action nullifies the master ballot. In the 2012 election, 8,500 voters statewide selected the Moderate Party, although there was no Moderate candidate on those ballots.
Block says voters are using the lever to indicate their political philosophy, not to vote.
Further, he pointed out, voters using the master lever overlook non-partisan races, such as that for school committee in many communities. His study found that there is a 58 percent “under vote” for non-partisan candidates by those using the master lever.
Finally, he maintains, “there’s no compelling reason” to maintain the master lever.
One of the first to testify for elimination of the lever was Susan Farmer, former Secretary of State and presently a member of the state Board of Elections. Farmer said she fought to remove the provision 30 years ago and “it’s now time” to do away with it. She said the lever is confusing to voters and makes it difficult for the Board of Elections to certify each ballot.
“Eliminating that one little box would make it so much easier,” she said.
Senator Frank Lombardi (D-Cranston) said it was his understanding that in the time of the mechanical voting machines, use of the master level “locked out” voting for individual candidates. He questioned why that couldn’t be possible today.
Picking up on the question, Committee Chairman Sen. Michael McCaffrey (D-Warwick) asked Farmer when the board seeks requests for proposals for new voting equipment whether it would include a program that would “kick out all other votes” if the straight party vote had been selected. Farmer couldn’t say when the board would replace the current machines.
The committee did not vote on the bill.