Rhode Island has a problem. It is a two-headed monster of a problem: Voters do not have enough information about their state representatives to know who to vote for, so in turn they vote by party. Due to this information gap, most Republican candidates for the State House in turn run as Democrats, banking on the State’s large Democratic voter base and lack of information that would expose them as conservatives.
That changes on January 1st. Beginning in 2020, every RI voter will have access to easy to understand ratings that compile each legislator’s voting record – on the House floor and in Committee, to paint the most detailed picture to date of that member’s record.
What exactly are we rating? At launch, we are aggregating bills selected by non-partisan organizations such as the ACLU and Common Cause. The public sentiment of these bills is generally one-sided but, short of that, an abundance of science must exist that indicates the position these organizations have taken on a bill is in the public good. We are removing opinion and emotion from the equation and only rating legislators on bills where the “right” choice is obvious or backed by scientific fact that it benefits the public good.
We are also adding more on top of what these organizations provide. Currently, the majority of them score legislators based solely on their floor votes. While this can still provide meaningful differentiation, committee votes are often where good bills die. Now, legislators will be held accountable for their committee votes.
Our goal is twofold: Is your state Senator or Representative fighting for you? Are they working to expand your rights, or curtail them? Or they choosing donors and lobbyists over constituents? We’ll give you the scoop – their report card, in a color-coded way that is very easy to understand.
Our second goal is to promote competition, because it is sorely lacking among the candidates for the General Assembly. In our last election (2018), over 30% of all General Assembly seats went uncontested. That means if the incumbent had been a tree, or a cartoon, or Joffrey Baratheon – they would continue to represent their district, by default – with nobody to stop them. Not only are there no set qualifications or skills required to serve in the GA, but 30% of our state legislature did not have to beat anybody to get there, and that should scare you. By nature, competition tends to flush out the worst candidates. When there is no requirement (other than signatures) to win a state seat, you should expect to get questionable leaders.
By presenting these ratings as a “progress report” for each legislator, we hope it not only works to improve how members represent their district, but also alert would-be contenders that their district has a poorly-performing representative, and that a primary or general election challenge may be a wise move for those considering throwing their hat into the ring.
This is just the start. We continue to work with hundreds of voters state-wide to assess how members of the GA respond to constituent concerns via email and phone. This will be the first ever undertaking to directly assess legislators’ performance outside of the State House, and we expect these ratings to be added by Spring 2020. In the second half of 2020, we will again be enlisting our army of constituent volunteers (want to help? Sign up!) to help us rank RI towns on the services they provide in correlation to the tax burden. How fast do potholes get filled? How quickly does the Mayor/Administrator’s office respond to citizen complaints? Which items will the trash collector accept? The goal of this project is both to improve customer service within each town by ranking them against each other, and to provide a resource to folks looking to move who may want a bit more insight into their prospective town than Zillow might provide.
We’re excited about what 2020 will bring to accountability for elected officials in both state and town government. Keep watching this space for more details and follow us on Twitter for the latest updates as we approach our launch in January.