Senator: Secret ballots would restore democracy at State House

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PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) – The process which local lawmakers use to select General Assembly leaders is being called into question.

State Sen. Donna Nesselbush, a Pawtucket Democrat, and Sam Bell, an unopposed Senate candidate from Providence, are calling for lawmakers to choose the Senate president and House speaker through a secret ballot system, rather than the traditional roll call vote.

“There is absolutely a negative consequence if you don’t vote for the winning leadership team,” Nesselbush told Eyewitness News on Friday. She said lawmakers who support alternative leaders are “punished” by having their bills held for further study indefinitely or by receiving smaller legislative grants.

“We’re about to elect four of the most powerful people in the state of Rhode Island,” she said. “Why wouldn’t we want to ensure that senators and representatives can vote their conscience?”

The call for change comes just days before Tuesday’s election. If re-elected, House Speaker Nicholas Mattiello is expected to call a caucus two days later where he will ask members to vote him back in as speaker. It’s unclear when Senate President Dominick Ruggerio will caucus with his remembers if re-elected.

The caucuses are frequently held behind closed doors, and members are asked to voice their votes,  something Nesselbush says goes against democracy. It’s the same process used on the first day of the session in January, when lawmakers make their votes official.

Nesselbush said senators and representatives should be afforded the same rights as voters at the polls: secret ballots. She said state law even mandates the use of a secret vote on the first day of the session in January, citing a part of the law that uses the term “ballot” multiple times.

“Fish rot from the head and we have to bring back fundamental democracy to Rhode Island,” she said.

Spokesmen for Ruggerio and Mattiello did not immediately return requests for comment Friday. However, Nesselbush argued this is the moment to institute a change in the rules in the Senate, because there is no opposition to Ruggerio’s leadership.

“They are not bad people,” she said. “They just inherited a bad system and they haven’t yet found the courage to change that system to one that is more democratic.”

When asked about the issue, Gov. Gina Raimondo said the General Assembly should foster a culture where disagreement isn’t persecuted.

“I don’t know that it matters whether it’s secret or not,” Raimondo said of the voting process. “But certainly it should be the case that everyone feels comfortable to vote the way they want to and dissent.”

Nesselbush said that’s not currently the case. Last year she introduced legislation that would mandate the use of a secret ballot process.

“As was expected, it was held for further study,” she said.

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