Some nights at Fenway, everything seems perfect: traffic is light, you grab a good parking space that costs only 12 quarters and arrive in plenty of time to see the pregame festivities. Everything is great until the actual game starts and the home team plays like the Bad News Bears. While there are nine innings for things to straighten out, you realize quickly that the early signs of good things to come might just be the best part of the evening.
Proponents of eliminating the so-called master lever (so-called because there is no actual lever) didn’t hit any traffic and took the first step towards realizing their goal of removing the straight party mechanism from the ballot when the House of Representatives passed the bill by a vote of 71-0. The bill, sponsored by Representative Joseph Shekarchi (D) of Warwick is seen by many as evidence of a major shift in leadership priorities under Speaker Nicholas Mattiello.
While I don’t want to burst anyone’s bubble about the win in the House, I do think that it could be just be like getting good parking and light traffic. Getting rid of the master lever will not be the panacea for non-Democrats that many think it will — and there’s no guarantee that it will pass the Senate.
Many anti-lever activists view the master lever as another way that the Democrats dominate the Rhode Island political landscape, offering an unfair advantage to Democratic candidates. While there is no doubt that there is an overwhelming number of registered Democrats — as of May 2013, 40.1% were registered Democrats, 10.2% were registered Republicans, and 0.002% were Moderates — eliminating the master lever is also going to cost Republicans and Moderates some automatic votes too. Of the 104,833 using the master lever in 2012 (which constituted 23.5% of all votes cast), 30,434 of those were cast for Republicans and Moderates — and in many towns there wasn’t even a Moderate on the ballot. In stark terms, while registered Moderates made up only .002% of eligible voters, more than 8% of straight ticket voters marked Moderate.
Let’s face it, the master lever is a crutch for more than just Democrats and considering the nearly 4 to 1 advantage in party affiliation, it’s amazing that any Republicans have been elected to statewide office in recent years. There’s no doubt that eliminating the master lever is the right thing to do because we all serve an informed electorate, but it would be smart for Republicans to continue to be introspective and strategic about the reasons for Democratic domination in Rhode Island. Most races are lost more than four months before Election Day when filing papers are due and scores of Democrats run unopposed in elections up and down the ballot. Creating an environment where the party can put forward smart and electable candidates will generate far more success for Republican candidates than changing a line on the ballot.
So while we all cheer for the repeal of the master lever in the House, Republicans would do well to remember that only a huge effort in the “middle innings” will create the final tally they want in November.
Cara Cromwell is a public affairs consultant with more than twenty years experience managing issues campaigns for corporations, non-profits, associations, coalitions and candidates on both sides of the aisle. Visit her blog, Straight Up The Middle, at straightupthemiddle.blogspot.com and follow her on Twitter @cmcromwell.