Today we published our 2021 Overall Rankings. I know, it’s 2022 and we just finished up with 2021 rankings. This past year, to save an enormous amount of time and eliminate any possibility of human error, we moved to a more automated system to tally and score votes. But thoroughly testing and tuning this system took more time than we hoped for. It was important to do this in a non-election year so that for 2022 we are all set to go and will return to our summer release schedule.
The overall results had very few surprises. Members who have been staunch supporters of issues that matter performed very well, and those that have worked to prevent progress landed towards the bottom. But there were a few surprises, namely some progressive members who scored worse than expected. A quick review of their committee assignments will provide insight into how they ended up with lower scores. These legislators are (new) members of historically conservative committees that rarely pass meaningful legislation. Good bills are routinely killed in these committees using the disingenuous “Hold for further study” tactic. Committee chairs instruct members of the committee that leadership wants to hold [usually a series of bills] for further study. Members of the committee then vote on whether they wish to do this. Each member has the ability to vote “no”, indicating they do not want to hold the bill(s) for further study. This does not mean they are voting in favor of the bill, but rather are voting to give the bill a fair yes/no vote at a later hearing, which most voters agree is reasonable. Because 99% of these bills held for study are not in fact “further studied”, the maneuver essentially kills these bills for the session unless the House Speaker or Senate President decides to take them up.
When a member votes to hold a bill for further study and it is not taken up in that session, RI Rank counts it as voting against the bill in committee, since the bill is in fact dead. For years, leadership and committee members were able to skirt accountability using this tactic because they were able to avoid voting good bills down directly. RI Rank’s scoring system challenges this tradition by enforcing this back-door “no” vote as a “no” vote. The bad news, however, is that this can severely harm the score of legislators who belong to committees that are assigned many of the bills we rank and go along with leadership’s bidding to hold them for further study. This is what happened with these members who came up short. In order to avoid this penalty, members can vote “no” to hold good bills for study and still reserve their right to vote how they wish on the merits of the bill itself. In instances where committee chairs attempt to package several bills together and vote to hold them for further study all at once, members can request that the bills be split up and voted on separately. These actions would not only strengthen each member’s power and in turn their constituent’s power, but will improve their scores and ultimately help to pass good legislation.
This year we introduced a new metric: leadership vote. The House Speaker and Senate President weld enormous power in deciding which bills get a floor vote and which do not, essentially acting as dictator in their chamber. As a result, a member’s leadership vote is of great importance and now part of our scoring. Legislators vote on these leaders after each election year and so their vote (and RI Rank score for this metric) carry over for two years. Because this is a new metric, we created criteria that made it relatively easy to earn a perfect score. In a nutshell, members receive a bonus score of 200 for voting for a member that scored “Excellent” in the prior year’s overall rankings (there were no nominees that did this past year), and receive a penalty for voting for a nominee that scored “Poor” in the prior year’s overall rankings (as Joe Shekarchi did). Members receive a perfect score of 100 if the only available nominees scored “OK” (as did Dominick Ruggerio in the Senate and Blake Filippi in the House) or “Poor” overall the prior year and they voted for the “OK” scoring nominee or abstained from voting.
Lastly, we made some scoring changes to reflect the current times. Because virtual Town Halls were allowed this year and are much easier to conduct, we cut the weight of the Town Hall metric in half to 10%. Despite this, the number of legislators who held verifiable town halls was relatively unchanged from 2020 to 2021. Though we received more claims from legislators that they held qualifying town halls this past year, many were unable to provide proof that the events were publicly advertised or that they met the criteria.
As we enter the election year of 2022, we continue working to ensure our metrics are fair and reflect what voters expect most from the legislators. Additionally, soon we will launch a handy page we’re calling “RI Ref” that contains all of a legislator’s contact info (email, phone, Facebook, Twitter, and website) in mobile-first design that you can pull up for quick reference and act on whenever you wish to contact your state senator or representative. We think you’ll love it.