Thursday, January 31, 2013

For real transparency we need to slow down

Kudos to the Economic Development Corporation (EDC), RI House and Senate for helping the Rhode Island Public Expenditure Council (RIPEC) with a new bill tracking system.  More tools for the public to follow the legislative process is an important win for transparency.

It should be noted, however, that even the best bill tracking (and we've had an internal system since 1996) is of little use when legislation flies through the process in the final days of the session.  If an amendment emerges and is voted on within minutes, that doesn't help the business community, the public, or even the legislators being asked to take the vote.  That's why Common Cause has proposed a rule for the House and Senate to hold amendments for 48 hours in committee before any vote. 

Transparency is important, but a process that allows citizens to take advantage of that transparency to make their voices heard in our policy process is even more important. 

Monday, January 28, 2013

Is it time for a constitutional convention in Rhode Island?

On Saturday, the Providence Journal published an article about the possibility of a constitutional convention in Rhode Island.   In 2014 there will be a question on the ballot asking the voters of Rhode Island whether they want there to be a constitutional convention.  It's a very important question, and Common Cause Rhode Island will spend a lot of time in the next year considering our position on the issue. 

Historically we have opposed these questions, for a variety of reasons.  Foremost, we worry that opening up our basic governing document will lead to mischief.  Many of our most important reforms, including the Ethics Commission, public financing of elections, and merit selection of judges, might be put at risk.  Likewise, civil rights issues might be put up for a popular vote as a result of a convention and that is a dangerous proposition.  For these, and other reasons, a constitutional convention is potentially problematic. 

On the other hand in 2009 the Rhode Island Supreme Court declared that two different sections of our Constitution, the speech in debate clause and the ethics amendment, are in conflict.  As a result, the Court stripped the state Ethics Commission of jurisdiction over the General Assembly.  The only way to remedy this conflict is through a constitutional change.  Until this point the Rhode Island Senate has stood as a barrier to the people of our state fixing our Constitution.  Unless the Senate sees fit to put a question on the ballot a constitutional convention may be the only way for the people to exercise their right on this matter. 

Furthermore, there are other reforms, important ones, the might be achieved at a convention.  At the top of that list is redistricting reform.  Over the decades we have seen ample examples of why the General Assembly cannot be trusted to draw its own boundaries.  Taking that power away from the legislature is not going to be easy, and a constitutional convention is the most likely scenario for achieving real change. 

As you can see, we've been thinking a lot about this question.  As supporters of Common Cause Rhode Island we want to know what you think as we deliberate.  Please feel free to leave comments here or reach out and email us, call us, or stop on by.

Monday, January 7, 2013

It's time to get rid of the "master lever"

For years Common Cause Rhode Island has advocated for eliminating the straight party option (or "master lever") on the Rhode Island ballot.  We have long suspected that the use of the so-called master lever was a problem for Rhode Island voters.  The option of casting a ballot for all partisan races with a single mark, while seemingly convenient, we suspected to result in a severe undervote for nonpartisan races.  Numerous cities and towns have councils and school committees that run without party labels.  When using the master lever we suspect thousands of voters are skipping right over those races, causing what is referred to as an undervote.

Until recently we could not prove that this was happening.  Rhode Island does not allow access to voted ballots, despite several access to public records attempts on our part.  Fortunately several leading political scientists looked at the impact of ballot design, and specifically the presence of the straight party option on the ballot, and confirmed our suspicions.  As they write, "Voters who use a straight-party option have fewer unintentional undervotes for partisan offices, especially when multiple candidates are to be selected, but they commit as many or more errors of omission in nonpartisan races." [emphasis added]*

So now we know definitively, the presence of the master lever on our ballot injures Rhode Island voters, and thus our democratic system.  So what can you do?  Join the movement to eliminate the master lever by signing up at and contacting your members of the General Assembly.
*Herrnson, Paul, Michael Hanmer, Richard Niemi.  2012.  The Impact of Ballot Type on Voter Errors. American Journal of Political Science.  

Friday, January 4, 2013

Happy New Year from Common Cause Rhode Island!

Yesterday I went to the State House and registered as your lobbyist for 2013. The halls were bustling with activity - as a new General Assembly begins the energy is high and the Representatives and Senators are ready to get down to business. I recommend that all Rhode Islanders spend time at the State House while the General Assembly is in session to experience the inner workings of the democratic process for yourself!

While we accomplished a lot together last year, there is still much work to do and that hard work begins now. I look forward to continuing the fight for ethics reform, early voting, and the many other issues we work for on your behalf.

Be sure to follow us, and stay abreast of ways to engage with our organization and issues, by making sure you receive all of our communications. If you want to receive our printed materials, including newsletters, please reply to this email with your mailing address. You probably already receive our emails, but if not, here is the link to sign up. On a more frequent basis we post to Facebook and blogger and we use Twitter daily to share our work with you.

Feel free to reach out to us by sending a note to or give us a call at 861-2322. We look forward to fighting for good government for you in 2013.

Thank you again for all that you do to make our work possible.  As we look ahead to the long legislative session ahead, we are more grateful than ever for your support and investment.


Thursday, January 3, 2013

Join us in 2013 for a State House Rotunda Roundup

Rotunda Roundup – noun
1. A behind-the-scenes tour of the State House while the General Assembly is in session
2. Gathering engaged Rhode Islanders at the State House for a citizen lobbyist boot camp to learn firsthand about representative democracy, open government, and effective advocacy

We are pleased to announce that now that the legislative session has begun and the General Assembly returned to the State House, we resume our Rotunda Roundup program. These interactive sessions serve to introduce RI citizens, advocacy organizations, and community groups to the ins and outs of lobbying and how to navigate the complexities of Smith Hill. Each Rotunda Roundup can accommodate up to 12 people and can be customized according to the interests and skill level of the partnering organization. Program options include a narrated tour, insider tips on effective lobbying, meet and greet with GA members, and observing the GA in session both on the House and Senate floors and in committee.

Our goals

·      Inform citizens about concrete policy issues in RI
·      Educate about the importance of open processes in advocacy work
·      Build the capacity of citizen lobbyists
·      Demonstrate the accessibility of civic participation
·      Equip Rhode Islanders with the skills, tools, and resources needed to effectively advocate for legislative change
·      Create opportunities for learning and dialogue around Common Cause’s core mission of open and accountable government processes
Tentative schedule
2:50pm:  Arrive State House - meet under Rotunda
3-4pm: Intro by Common Cause and partnering organization, intro by General Assembly member, insider stories and tips, overview of what to expect during program
4-5pm: Experience the House floor in action, brief State House tour, observe General Assembly in action from The Gallery before The Rise, observe committees in session
5-5:30pm: debrief, Q &A
If your group or organization is interested in learning more about what goes on behind-the-scenes at the State House or how to be more effective citizen lobbyists, please contact us at or 401-861-2322.  

Leadership Rhode Island experiencing the House of Representatives in action