Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Removing the Taint from R.I. Elections


THE NEWS isn’t all bad out there. As part of a burgeoning, bipartisan reform movement, two freshman legislators, one a Democrat and one a Republican, are teaming up to help move Rhode Island beyond a corrupt legacy of machine politics. They want the sort of healthier elections, leading to healthier governance, that better-run states enjoy.

Representatives Michael Marcello (D.-Scituate) and Brian Newberry (R.-North Smithfield) submitted a bill this month to finally end straight-ticket voting, sometimes called the “master lever” — the system, banned in most states, that permits voting purely on the basis of party up and down the ballot by drawing a single line, rather than properly requiring citizens to actually vote for a candidate to put him or her in a position of power.

Needless to say, this reform effort has the support of the state’s leading good-government and watchdog groups, including Operation Clean Government and Common Cause. Representative Marcello argues that the reform would have no effect on the balance of power in the state, but it would remove the taint that now surrounds Rhode Island elections.

“It has cheapened the victories of those of us who have won, and made people think they were somehow or other not legitimate,” said Representative Marcello.

The House Judiciary Committee considered the bill last week, and “held [it] for further consideration.” There’s no word yet on whether House Speaker William Murphy (D.-West Warwick) and Senate President Teresa Paiva Weed (D.-Newport) will do the right thing, and support reform. But both have won praise in the past for displaying courage and independence — Speaker Murphy in helping put separation of powers on the ballot; President Paiva Weed in supporting a cap on the growth in local taxes.

Let’s face it: Rhode Island could desperately use some reform in how it handles elections.

As most honest observers acknowledge, the master lever is a morally bankrupt system, designed to put parties above the public interest, and to stifle the spirited opposition that is the lifeblood of a healthy democracy. Rhode Island is one of only 16 states that perpetuate this racket. Shamefully, Secretary of State Ralph Mollis is among the old-time pols opposing this reform.

The lever tends to slaughter independents or candidates from the smaller parties in races for legislative or municipal offices. When people have to vote for an actual human being to elect someone, candidates have a fighting chance to make their case. Straight-ticket voting tends to create dangerously lopsided legislatures, where power cannot be effectively restrained or challenged. It also undermines democracy by depressing competition in elections. People do not want to run for office when they enter the contest with a built-in disadvantage that may equal hundreds or thousands of votes.

It is a big reason one party now controls 91 percent of the General Assembly, something even labor leader George Nee acknowledged is unhealthy for democracy. As I have long argued here, nothing works better to promote ethics in government than competitive elections; and nothing makes politicians more eager to serve special interests than the knowledge their record will go unchallenged.

The politicians of most other states are decent enough people to understand that party is not everything — that, in the long run, it is better for representative democracy and their posterity to have relatively fair elections. In any event, they believe that hard work, message, organization and money should be enough to decide an election, without even more sharply tilting the playing field against members of minority parties and independents.

Edward O’Neill, of Lincoln, co-sponsor of the Senate companion to the Marcello-Newberry bill, knows something about the steep mountain in front of independent candidates. He toppled Senate President Joseph Montalbano last November, but it was not easy. Mr. Montalbano had a built-in advantage of 2,105 votes from the master lever — most of those voters, surely, more interested in putting Barack Obama in the White House and Jack Reed in the U.S. Senate than in propping up an ethics-challenged local legislator.

As Mr. O’Neill notes, a whopping 35 percent of Mr. Montalbano’s 5,980 votes came from the master lever. As an independent, Mr. O’Neill received not one vote from that system. He had to earn every one of his 6,773 votes himself.

He won, in part, because of the cloud over Mr. Montalbano. But other independents and minority-party candidates got swept away last November when the system did precisely what it was designed to do: give the dominant party a huge advantage.

Undoubtedly, Democrats are the more popular party in Rhode Island. But they hardly constitute 91 percent of the voter registration. Indeed, the biggest single block of voters are unaffiliated. They vote for the person, not the party.

It is encouraging that there are young politicians, from both major parties, who want to move Rhode Island out of the sewer and into the sunlight of healthier elections. In a year when so much else is going wrong, here is something that the leadership of the General Assembly could easily put right.

Citizens should call their legislators now and ask them to support the bills removing the master lever.

Edward Achorn is The Journal’s deputy editorial-pages editor ( eachorn@projo.com).

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