RI Senate Open Government & Ethics RankingsSee which Senators have voted to ensure state government transparency and proper ethics.
Summary of Our Findings
As was the case in past segments, the Senate continued to suffer from group-think directed by leadership. Of the 12 bills that Common Cause lobbied for or against in 2018-2019 that received floor votes, in all but 2, over 90% of the Senate voted with leadership. While the majority of bills with this level of support were favored by Common Cause, 4 of them were opposed - and those bills in explicably received near-unanimous support in the Senate.
As was the case with the Civil Liberties Rankings segment, the Senate Judiciary Committee put themselves in a deep hole by voting down important legislation endorsed by Common Cause, including good bills on campaign contributions, open meetings, and ironically, a bill authorizing mail-in ballots in emergency situations (such as, a virus pandemic).
We evaluated 18 bills with assigned Senate bill numbers in which Common Cause of Rhode Island publicly supported or opposed during the 2018-2019 legislative years. Senators were awarded a point for floor votes that support the Common Cause position, and zero points if they opposed the Common Cause position, abstained, or were absent from the vote. Three bills (2973, 2008, and 2955A) were assigned double-credit (2 points) by Common Cause and this was carried over to our rankings. Those serving on committees that voted on an applicable bill were awarded a point for a committee vote that aligned with the Common Cause position, and zero points for a vote opposing the Common Cause position. An absence or abstaining from a committee vote was not counted at all, as legislators were more likely to miss committee votes than floor votes due to other obligations. As such, we chose not to penalize this for the 2020 rankings, since a penalty exists already on the floor vote. This may change in the future if we find legislators deliberately skipping committee votes to avoid accountability. However, for the bills we evaluated, this was not the case.
About Committee Votes
Our rankings are the first "scorecard" to include committee votes. Committee votes play a huge part in Democracy, because a bill voted down in committee usually never sees the light of day for a floor vote. Many good bills die in committee, both on the local and national level and much more attention should be paid to this step in the lawmaking process. In committee, a small group of legislators votes on behalf of the entire Senate and determines whether a bill is worthy of a full floor vote. With respect to these rankings, committees defeated 6 bills that were supported by Common Cause using the "Held for Further Study" gimmick. The gimmick works like this: Rather than going on the record as opposing a good bill or supporting an unpopular bill, voting to hold a bill for further study allows the committee to kill a bill by simply ignoring it. While some bills held are actually "studied" and re-introduced for a second vote later on in the session, the vast majority of bills come to an end using this maneuver. Generally, Senate committee votes suffer from "group think" or direction from leadership because lawmakers are not familiar enough with the bills they are tasked with voting on. As a result, members vote as leadership instructs them or side with the voice majority. Our rankings treat a vote for further study as a "no" vote if the bill never comes up again in that year's session. As a result, voters have a much clearer picture of how damaging committees can be to progress.
Best Open Government and Ethics Voting Record
Adam SatchellDistrict 9 (Elected 2012)
Exceeded highest possible score
Defied leadership in multiple votes to uphold democratic principles
Due to Common Cause assigning higher values to certain bills and Senator Satchell supporting the Common Cause position in all of them, Mr. Satchell technically exceeded the highest possible score of 100. While he was far from alone in supporting these high-value bills, he also supported the Common Cause position on items that required far more political courage, including the Senate rules and suspension of those same rules.
Sam BellDistrict 5 (Elected 2018)
Perfect score included multiple divisive votes
Newly elected in 2018, resulting in limited voting record
Senator Bell's perfect score is based on just 3 out of 12 total floor votes, but two of the three votes he was able to make supported the Common Cause position on highly divisive legislation: the Senate Rules for 2019 and disclosure of tax returns by presidential candidates. We are confident based on these votes that had Dr. Bell served in 2018, his voting record would have similarly upheld the vast majority of Common Cause positions.
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Open Government and Ethics Voting Score
Excellent OK Poor
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How We Rank
Score is the cumulative total of the Senator's floor and committee votes that support the Common Cause position divided by the total number of votes the Senator could have participated in (committee votes were only counted if the Senator was present for the vote). We then multiplied the score by 100 to create a scale from 1-100. Scores exceeding 100 were scaled down to 100.
Common Cause categorizes the bills they support/oppose, however for 2018-2019 there were too few votes in any category to reliably apply these categories to our rankings. A minimum of 3 votes were required for a Senator to be given a total score, and all Senators qualified.
Senators with scores above 85 are considered "Excellent" open government and ethics advocates, scores between 60 - 84 are "OK", and scores below 60 are considered "Poor". The maximum possible score is 100. The lowest possible score is 0.
(All Senate bills. Underlined bills were counted as 2 points on the floor vote, per Common Cause. A = Sub A)
2019: 2440, 2446A, 2612A, 2973, 2308A, Suspension of Rules, 2008, 2967, and 2955A.
2018: 250, 342, 368, 457, 468, 471, 482, 600, and 631.