Rhode Island's General Assembly began its 2010 session last month by overriding vetoes of two important electoral reform bills — one allowing 16 and 17-year-olds to pre-register to vote and the other mandating special elections to fill U.S. Senate vacancies.
The state's legislators have overturned several of the 27 vetoes issued by outgoing Gov. Donald Carcieri '65 at the close of the 2009 legislative session. The veto overrides represent the convergence of Democratic political clout in the General Assembly and of the imminent departure of a Republican governor, said Wendy Schiller, associate professor of political science.
"Because Rhode Island is an overwhelmingly Democratic state, the legislature will almost always win," she said.
Schiller attributed the "cycle of veto and overturn" to the relationship between Carcieri, who is prohibited by term limits from seeking reelection, and a Democratic legislature emboldened by the governor's lame duck status.
Democratic support for the pre-registration bill was strengthened by new evidence linking youth mobilization to votes for Democrats, Schiller said.
Also a factor for the support for the Senate vacancies legislation was a rumor that when Department of Defense Secretary Robert Gates resigns, Sen. Jack Reed, D-R.I., will be a favorite to take his place, according to Schiller. Rhode Island legislators would like to avoid the messy and protracted Senate vacancy struggles like those that took place recently in Illinois and New York, she said.
Ari Savitzky '06 — the chairman of FairVote Rhode Island, an organization that supported both electoral reform bills — hails their recent passage as "a great thing for Rhode Island's democracy."
Being registered to vote is one of the most important determinants of electoral participation, especially for young people, and incorporating voter registration into civics classrooms in Rhode Island public schools offers an opportunity to further swell the ranks of participating young people, Savitzky said.
Savitzky credited the bills with having "broad bipartisan support," and he cited the help of the Brown Republicans during his own time at Brown in advocating for the voting reform bill that allows preregistered teenagers to automatically be eligible to vote once they turn 18.
Sen. Rhoda Perry, D-Dist. 3, whose district includes College Hill, also supported both bills.
"I think it is always a good idea to have people in an electoral district choose (their representatives) rather than having the governor appoint someone," she said of the Senate vacancies bill.
Perry attributed the overrides largely to the Democratic majority of supporters in the legislature, but she stopped short of defining the pre-registration bill in strictly political terms.
"I look at it not as a partisan issue but as an education issue," she said.
Rep. David Segal, D-Dist. 2, lauded the changes for "encouraging people to engage in the political process throughout their lives," though he recused himself from voting on the reform bills due to his prior work on behalf of FairVote at the national level.
The pre-registration act had passed in the General Assembly multiple times in past years, but until recently, had always been killed by a veto, Segal said.
Opponents of the legislation were concerned that allowing pre-registration would add a new category of voters that could be manipulated for the purpose of fraud, according to Segal. But the positive results of similar legislation in states such as Florida, North Carolina and Hawaii have largely assuaged those fears, he said.
"On the whole, the reforms should encourage people's faith in governance structures and encourage participation," Segal said.