Rhode Island Legislature Overrides Electoral Reform Vetoes FairVote Catalyst for Major Wins for Youth Pre-registration, Elections for U.S. Senate Vacancies

Released January 6, 2010

Ari Savitzky, FairVote Rhode Island - ari.savitzky@gmail.com / 401-529-3982
Paul Fidalgo, FairVote communications director - paul@fairvote.org / 301-270-4616

The Rhode Island State Senate and House of Representatives yesterday voted to override two gubernatorial vetoes of landmark electoral reform legislation, thereby enacting FairVote-initiated measures allowing voter pre-registration for 16 and 17-year-olds and mandating popular elections to fill all U.S. Senate vacancies.

FairVote, a nonpartisan think tank devoted to improving American elections, has been a leader in the drive to bring these reforms to Rhode Island through the efforts of its state affiliate, FairVote Rhode Island. In 2006, FairVote was the key catalyst for the advance registration legislation, working closely with prime sponsors Rep. Edwin Pacheco and Sen. Rhoda Perry. The bill (S 0085/H 5005) will allow 16 and 17-year-old Rhode Island citizens to "pre-register" to vote, automatically adding them to the rolls for the first election for which they are eligible. Starting in 2006, this measure easily passed both houses of the Rhode Island legislature four times with bipartisan support, only to inexplicably face Gov. Donald Carcieri's veto pen each time.

FairVote this year helped usher in legislation introduced by Rep. Christopher Fierro and Sen. Paul Jabour mandating special elections for the filling of vacated U.S. Senate seats (S 0201/H 5094), the need for which became alarmingly apparent in the wake of controversies and scandals surrounding governor-appointed senators after the 2008 election. Rhode Island's own David Segal, a FairVote analyst, testified in 2009 before the U.S. Senate on behalf of a constitutional amendment mandating Senate vacancy elections backed by leading Republicans and Democrats, including Sens. John McCain (R-AZ) and Russ Feingold (D-WI), while Connecticut's Republican governor Jodi Rell signed legislation passed out of the Democratically-controlled legislature last year, though Gov. Carcieri  rejected a similar bill that had once again passed overwhelmingly with bipartisan support.

Both vetoes were easily overturned by both houses of the Rhode Island legislature Tuesday.

"We are proud to have helped lay the groundwork for today's important victories," said Rob Richie, elections expert and FairVote executive director. "With the good will and strong advocacy provided over the years by FairVote and like-minded reformers-such as the leadership of both houses, Reps. Edwin Pacheco and Christopher Fierro, Sens. Paul Jabour and Rhoda Perry, and Secretary of State A. Ralph Mollis-Rhode Island voters will now have expanded access for its newest voters and the final word about who represents them in the U.S. Senate. This is a good day for democracy in Rhode Island - and the nation."

Tuesday's events in Providence are the latest in a major nationwide sweep of pro-democracy reforms backed by FairVote. Youth pre-registration measures have gained enormous ground all across the country, with new legislation recently passed in several states. In 2009, FairVote worked closely with Democracy North Carolina to build a bipartisan legislative majority in support of pre-registration for 16-year-olds in that state, which also included a significant civics education component. Also in 2009, with the signature of Republican governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, California enacted a 17-year-old pre-registration measure- an effort led by FairVote ally the New America Foundation. The District of Columbia recently passed sweeping election reform legislation which included pre-registration measures, which was supported by testimony to the DC City Council from FairVote's Adam Fogel. In 2008, FairVote helped bring about pre-registration legislation in Florida that was supported by both a Republican governor and Republican legislative majority.

Meanwhile, several other states are either in the process of passing or considering similar bills, all with FairVote as a crucial source of research and support, and congressional legislation is anticipated to support the idea nationally. Commissioned by the Pew Charitable Trusts, a new report by George Mason University professor Michael McDonald found that voter pre-registration in Hawaii and Florida has a direct impact on youth registration and participation when accompanied by civic education initiatives at schools and government agencies.

FairVote has also been at the forefront of the movement to mandate special elections for filling U.S. Senate vacancies in the same manner that U.S. House vacancies are required to be filled: by election of the people. David Segal's commentary on this issue has appeared in the New York Times, the Baltimore Sun, and just weeks before last year's win in Connecticut, the Hartford Courant, and Rob Richie's commentary was published in the Miami Herald.

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Established in 1992, FairVote is a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization that educates and enlivens discourse on how best to achieve a democracy that respects every voice and every vote. We pursue innovative research, strategic outreach and civic education in order to promote fair access to political participation, fair elections, and fair representation. For more information, contact communications director Paul Fidalgo at paul(at)fairvote.org or (301) 270-4616.