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Senate panel votes to hold legislation that would end straight-ticket voting in Rhode Island

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PROVIDENCE, Rhode Island — A Senate legislative panel considered a bill Tuesday that would eliminate straight-ticket voting in Rhode Island, one of more than a dozen states that give voters the option of picking all the candidates of one party with a single ballot mark.

All testimony at a crowded Senate Judiciary Committee hearing was in favor of getting rid of the so-called "master lever." Critics of straight-ticket voting called it outdated and undemocratic and said it confuses and disenfranchises voters. It also hurts candidates in non-partisan races lower down on the ballot, according to backers of the change.

"We would like to see people take the time and actually make a decision for each of the races," said Joan Chabot, who serves on the town council in Tiverton, where all local races, including for council and the budget and school committees, are non-partisan.

Republican gubernatorial candidate Ken Block, who has pushed for years to eliminate the option, urged the panel to take an immediate vote. The legislation has not come to a vote in prior years despite overwhelming testimony in favor of it.

"The brutal truth is that the master lever is bad for democracy, no matter how you cut it," he said. "Our founders did not intend for parties to drive the political process."

He and others testified that the issue is not partisan, though some critics of the master lever say it gives an advantage to Democrats in a heavily Democratic state.

About a quarter of Rhode Island voters in the November 2012 election used the master lever; three-fourths voted for Democrats.

"This is not a partisan issue — it never has been," said Sen. Stephen Archambault, D-Smithfield. "It's an issue about what's best for the people of this state when they go into a booth and cast their vote."

The committee voted 6-2 in favor of holding the legislation for further study, with several senators saying the issue deserves a vote later.

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