Why master lever abolition should fail, for now

ML pic pulledAbout a month ago, Common Cause RI Executive Director John Marion wrote a great piece here on RI Future explaining exactly why the single party option (aka the “master lever” or SPO) on Rhode Island’s voting ballots is a bad idea, citing a 2006 study by researchers at the Universities of Maryland and Rochester that demonstrated it produced confusion for voters over the age of 75, less educated voters, and black voters (the study was less confident in the assertion that SPO produces undervotes, where a person didn’t select a candidate for a race). It’s pretty clear that abolishing the single party option would end that confusion at the polls.

So why should the push to end this miserable state of affairs fail? Because it’s not about voter enfranchisement. Well, for Common Cause it is. If we really wanted voter enfranchisement, we’d talk about things like ending elections on a working Tuesday and moving them to the weekend or making Election Day a paid holiday. We’d see a push from the same forces howling about the “master lever” for early voting. Or automatic mail ballots. Or automatic voter registration. Perhaps they’d even being calling for campaign finance reform. Or instant run-off voting to end the first-past-the-post system that currently allows people who win only a third of the electorate to become governor. Or lowering the bar to become a political party.

Common Cause advocates for a lot of those things; but Common Cause isn’t necessarily making the headlines. We’ve seen Ken Block ask questions like “do we really want uninformed people voting?” Yes! The answer to that question is always an emphatic yes! Everyone should vote, and if you can’t get everyone, get most of the people. Right now, to win an election, you only have to win a plurality of a minority. We’re seeing pie-in-the-sky conservatives rally for this, even though it’s not going to solve their issue of being generally unelectable.

Abolishing a ballot option that causes voter confusion isn’t what makes good government. Good government is the kind of government that is responsive to people who don’t necessarily have the time to make the talk show circuits and write press releases. The master lever should be abolished when the issue is not just a vehicle for a single person to gain media coverage, but when it’s part of a full-scale overhaul of elections aimed at making this a government where all voices are heard.

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A native-born Rhode Islander, educated in Providence Public Schools, went to college in North Carolina and a political junkie and pessimistic optimist.

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