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There's a lot of confusion over the master lever in Rhode Island general elections, in part because nobody seems able to clearly explain how it works.
For the uninitiated, the master lever is actually a space on the ballot that, if filled in, automatically casts votes for all candidates of a particular party. (The phrase comes from the days of voting machines when there was actually a big lever voters could pull to make a straight-party-line vote.)
It's typically used by about 20 percent of voters and three times more often among Democrats than Republicans, which reflects the ratio of registered Democrats to Republicans in the state.
Reform groups don't like the lever because they want people to vote for each candidate, not a party. All of the candidates for governor support eliminating it, and Robert Healey, running as an independent for lieutenant governor, has filed a federal lawsuit challenging it.
In discussions of the master lever in recent weeks, we've heard some misleading statements, including from incumbent Secretary of State Ralph Mollis, about how the master lever works. Some could be interpreted to mean that if you use the master lever and then vote for a candidate of another party, all your master lever votes will be lost.
On WHJJ's Helen Glover Show, Republican Catherine Taylor, who is running for Mollis' job, offered one of the better explanations we've heard and argued that information about the quirks of the master lever should be listed on the ballot
But then Taylor said there's a reason people don't understand the issue: "No one tells them. There's nothing in the voting instructions that we've been getting in the last several elections that lets you know."
First, with some candidates giving the impression that the master lever robs you of some votes, here are the key points you need to know:
1.) If you just mark the master lever and then put your ballot in the scanner, all members of the party you choose get a vote.
2.) However, if there are nonpartisan races on the ballot, none of those candidates will receive your vote. You have to mark them separately.
3.) The same is true for any referendum questions.
4.) If you use the master lever, you can still vote for candidates outside the party. Thus, if you mark the master lever for Party A, you can still vote for members of Party B or Party C in individual races. The computer ignores your master lever selection in those races. Voting outside Party A does not negate all your master-lever votes, only the ones you want it to.
5.) There's an important exception. In some local races, voters are offered more than one choice. You may be asked to select, for example, three members for the School Committee, and there could be up to three people from each party to choose from.
In that case, if there are three candidates from Party A and you use the Party A master lever, all three will get your vote.
But if you chose just one candidate from Party B, none of the School Committee candidates from Party A will get your vote. After all, the computer has no way of knowing which two of the three Party A candidates you favor. Thus, you must indicate the two Party A candidates you want for that contest.
Your Party A votes are unaffected for other races, according to Chris Barnett, Secretary of State Mollis' communications director, who said the system is repeatedly tested just before each election to make sure the votes in such races are divvied up correctly.
How do we know this?
We checked with Mollis' office and Barnett to confirm how the machines are programmed.
More to the point, we got copies of voter handbooks, mailed to all registered voters by the secretary of state's office, going back to the 1998 election, the first year the electronic scanners were put in place.
It turns out that the early instructions failed to emphasize all the quirks people needed to know if they used the master lever. But beginning in 2002, the handbook instructions became quite clear.
We asked Taylor's campaign about her claim. It responded by acknowledging that the handbooks are useful documents, but that information "does not reach every voter . . . not every voter reads the handbook, and it is difficult to reach voters with no fixed address. They are not a reliable way of telling voters the critical point: that their votes may not count if they pull the master lever."
The Taylor campaign went even further in a July 26 press release, which said that voters need to be warned that "by choosing the master lever, they will not be able to cast a vote in many nonpartisan or multi-choice local races." That's dead wrong.
In fact they can vote and their votes always count, with only one exception -- when a voter goes outside the party in contests where you can make more than one choice, they have to take extra care to mark the party members they want for that particular office.
Taylor makes a good point when she says the master-lever issues should be addressed on each ballot or in polling places. But her contention that the issues have not been addressed in the voting instructions of the last several elections turns out to be dead wrong as well.
A candidate running for secretary of state should know that, so we give her a False.
Podcast, WHJJ, "Helen Glover Show 7-27-10 8am," accessed July 27, 2010
Debate, Ralph Mollis vs. Leonidas Raptakis, "State of the State," Operation Clean Government, taped July 22, 2010
Emails and interview, Chris Barnett, communications director, secretary of state's office, July 23, 26, 27 and 30, 2010
Rhode Island Secretary of State, "1998 How to Register & Vote: A guide for voters," page 6
Rhode Island Secretary of State, "2000 How to Register & Vote: A guide for voters," page 7
Rhode Island Secretary of State, "2002 How to Register & Vote: A guide for voters," page 8
Rhode Island Secretary of State, "Rhode Island - How to Register and Vote Guide 2004," pages 9 and 10
Rhode Island Secretary of State, "Rhode Island - How to Register and Vote Guide 2006," pages 9 and 10
Rhode Island Secretary of State, "Rhode Island Register and Vote - 2008," pages 12 and 13
Providence Journal, "Glitch surfaces in new voting system: The problem could cancel some 'straight-party' votes," Oct. 16, 1998, page B-1
Email, Nate Taylor, Christine Taylor campaign, July 29, 2010
Press release, Catherine Taylor Secretary of State, "Taylor: The Time has Come to Eliminate Master Lever Voting," July 26, 2010
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