House panel takes 1st step to eliminating master lever
Don’t wait any longer.
That was the plea from one speaker after the next on Tuesday, and that’s just what the House Judiciary Committee did when it voted on legislation to eliminate the master lever from the voting ballot.
The committee unanimously approved legislation introduced by Warwick Rep. Joseph Shekarchi after being amended to make it effective in this election cycle. The bill also calls on the secretary of state to educate voters on the change, which would remove the ability to cast a ballot for all members of one party with one stroke of the pen.
Shekarchi said he talked with Donna McDonald, clerk of the Warwick Board of Canvassers, and former clerk Joseph Gallucci, and both were opposed to elimination of the master lever on grounds it could be confusing to elderly voters. Citing the campaign the secretary of state initiated following the measure requiring voter ID, Shekarchi thought there could be a similar effort before making the change in 2016. But nobody wanted to wait another two years.
“Get it done this year,” reasoned Rep. Doreen Costa.
Shekarchi agreed to an amendment that would keep the educational piece of his bill but make it effective this year.
Bruno “Buddy” Tassoni, 77, of Johnston pointed out that he is a senior citizen voter and he wouldn’t need any instruction if the master level were eliminated.
“I don’t need anyone to tell me,” he said. He made it clear that he’s waited long enough to see removal of the master lever. “I’m going to be furious if we have this hearing and then it’s held for further study.”
But that’s just what happened when the bill came before the Senate Judiciary Committee earlier this year. Despite overwhelming support in the Senate, the committee held the bill. With approval by the House Judiciary Committee, the measure will now come to the House floor, where it is expected to pass.
As has been the case in prior years, no one spoke in opposition to the bill. This was a point raised by several speakers Tuesday night.
“Contrary to what some may say, eliminating straight party voting will not result in civil unrest, locusts or the plague,” testified Narragansett resident Meg Rogers to a ripple of laughter. “Please, do not keep Rhode Island behind the curve once again…Speaker Mattiello has set his priorities: this General Assembly is to get back to the business of helping business and restoring our business climate so that people can work, live and thrive in our beautiful state.”
North Providence resident Barry Schiller told of how he has worked in the community and how people are aware of this issue.
“Not to pass this bill will undermine respect for the political process, and we don’t want that to happen,” he said.
Abel Collins of the Sierra Club joined the ranks, calling for passage of the bill. He said it would make for more engaged voters.
And if there is any doubt that the master lever serves to disenfranchise voters, John Marion cited instances where voters cast a party ballot for the Moderate Party when there weren’t any Moderate candidates on the ballot. He said voters confuse the party designation as “an expression of political ideology” rather than a vote of all the candidates of a party.
“Every vote should be counted the way it was intended to be counted,” he said.
Rep. Michael Marcello, whose bill called for elimination of the master level this year, saw no reason for a delay. He questioned the need to educate voters. He went on to point out that the lever was introduced in 1948 and upheld by the courts the following year after being challenged on its constitutionality.
Among those testifying was Ken Block, who has made this a cause as a Moderate candidate for governor who is now running for the office as a Republican. Block rallied support in emails and on his website. Shekarchi said it was Block’s “compelling” arguments and analysis that convinced him that the master lever should be stricken from the ballot.
Michael Carbone, who got a chuckle when he said the master lever has been around since he was 10 years old, suggested to the committee that this was their opportunity to be known for either supporting progressive legislation or being those who denied it.