'Master Lever' Bad Even in Colonial R.I

By Conley, Patrick T | Providence Journal (Providence, RI), May 13, 2014 | Go to article overview

'Master Lever' Bad Even in Colonial R.I


Conley, Patrick T, Providence Journal (Providence, RI)


Voting has always been the most divisive issue in Rhode Island's political and constitutional history. A demand to expand the franchise was one of the two major issues precipitating the famous Dorr Rebellion of 1841-42. When the 1986 Constitutional Convention consolidated our voting regulations, its delegates discovered that, of the 44 amendments to the state constitution of 1843, 22 dealt in some way with suffrage, or with reapportionment - that is, with the weight one's vote would carry.

Therefore, the long debate over the master lever is simply one facet of the endless quest for a purer democracy in America's first democratic colony and state.

The General Assembly introduced voting machines in 1935 as one of the reforms of that governmental upheaval called the Bloodless Revolution. The legislature placed a master lever on those machines in 1948.

However, few know that a paper "master lever" originated in Rhode Island during the mid-18{+t}{+h} century when Rhode Island became the first American colony to institute a two-party political system.

In the generation preceding the American Revolution, opposing groups, one headed by Samuel Ward and the other by Stephen Hopkins, were organized with sectional overtones; generally speaking (though there were notable exceptions), the merchants and farmers of southern Rhode Island, led by Ward, battled with their counterparts from Providence and its environs, the faction led by Hopkins.

The principal goal of these two groups was to secure control of the powerful legislature in order to obtain the host of public offices - from chief justice to inspector of tobacco - at the disposal of that body.

The semi-permanent nature, relatively stable membership, and explicit sectional rivalry of the warring camps have led one historian to describe the state's pre-Revolutionary political structure as one of "stable factionalism." Professor Jackson Turner Main, the leading authority on the early formation of American political parties, has unequivocally stated that "Rhode Island produced the first two-party, or, more accurately two-factional system in America."

The rules by which the Rhode Island political game were played were as noteworthy as the development of our party system itself. The charter provided the broad framework within which elections were conducted, but a succession of resourceful, imaginative politicians supplied the unique details through an intricate combination of custom and statute.

The salient and most significant feature of Rhode Island government under the charter was that the crucial electoral arena was the colony - and later the state - as a unit. The governor and deputy governor, together with a secretary, an attorney general and a treasurer, were elected annually in April on a colony-wide or at- large basis, as were ten "assistants" who constituted the upper house. …

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'Master Lever' Bad Even in Colonial R.I
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