5 things you need to know about today’s election in Rhode Island

Polls close at 8 p.m.; get up to speed here before the results come in tonight

Julianne Peixoto | WPRI-TV
Julianne Peixoto | WPRI-TV

PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) – It’s finally over.

Voters all across the United States are heading to the polls Tuesday to choose a new president following an extraordinarily negative race between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump. Closer to home, Rhode Island voters will make decisions about congressmen, mayors, ballot questions and state lawmakers – including one highly consequential race in Cranston.

To get you up to speed before polls close at 8 p.m., here’s a quick cheat sheet. Check WPRI.com and tune into Eyewitness News throughout the day for updates and in-depth analysis, plus full results once they start coming in soon after 8.

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Cranston voters could oust the General Assembly’s top Democrat.

The speaker of the Rhode Island House of Representatives is often called the state’s most powerful politician, and for good reason – he has final control over the flow of legislation, huge influence over the $9-billion annual state budget, and a whole host of ways he can reward allies and punish enemies.

matiello-frias-debateCranston Democrat Nicholas Mattiello has held the speaker’s gavel since Gordon Fox fell from grace in 2014, and not so long ago it seemed he might coast to re-election – just last year, for example, every House Republican voted in favor of Mattiello’s budget plan. But truck tolls, a series of State House scandals and the conservative lean of House District 15, which he’s represented since 2007, have put Mattiello at risk of being defeated by Republican National Committeeman Steven Frias, a fellow lawyer. (The pair met for their one and only debate Friday on WPRI 12’s Newsmakers.)

No House speaker has lost his re-election race in living memory: state library staffers checked all the way back to 1904 and couldn’t find a single example of it happening. (It’s happened on the other side of the legislature, though: Senate President Joe Montalbano was defeated in 2008.)

A Mattiello loss would trigger an immediate, chaotic scramble for power among other state reps angling for the speakership; some have already planned semi-secret meetings Tuesday night to strategize with fellow lawmakers.

If Mattiello wins, it would be a psychic blow to Republicans who’ve invested a lot of time and energy in unseating him. Attention will turn to Mattiello’s choice for a new House majority leader, since his current No. 2, Providence Democrat John DeSimone, lost his re-election primary in September. (DeSimone is waging a write-in campaign Tuesday despite losing the primary, but that’s a long shot, and there’s no guarantee Mattiello would bring him back as majority leader even if he managed to win.)

Keep an eye on how Donald Trump does in Rhode Island.

Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump, left, stands with Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton before the first presidential debate at Hofstra University, Monday, Sept. 26, 2016, in Hempstead, N.Y. (AP Photo/ Evan Vucci)Hillary Clinton is going to win Rhode Island on Tuesday, barring a political earthquake. History is with her – Rhode Island has voted for the Democratic nominee in 17 of the 21 presidential contests since 1928. (The exceptions: Eisenhower twice, Nixon once and Reagan once.) The last time a Republican won the Ocean State was 1984, when Reagan took it as part of his 49-state re-election landslide, and even then Rhode Island gave the Gipper his third-worst showing.

Still, Donald Trump presents an interesting test case for the Rhode Island electorate. The last three Republican nominees each received 32% to 39% of the vote in Rhode Island. It’s possible Trump could fall short of that; he’s polling under 30% in Massachusetts, which usually votes similarly to Rhode Island. On the other hand, back during the primaries Rhode Island gave Trump what at the time was his biggest victory to date, and the state’s demographics open up the possibility he could outperform his GOP predecessors.

Will voters in other states give Jack Reed a big promotion?

jack reedU.S. Sen. Jack Reed isn’t on the ballot in Rhode Island on Tuesday; he just won a new six-year term in 2014. But his future is on the ballot in a number of other states.

That’s because the states with competitive U.S. Senate elections – New Hampshire, North Carolina, Florida, Indiana and others – will decide whether Democrats or Republicans control the upper chamber of Congress next January. And if the Democrats pick up enough seats to flip the Senate, as they have a decent chance to do, Reed will almost certainly become the new chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, one of the most powerful and influential posts in Congress.

Rhode Islanders have chaired committees before – Claiborne Pell and T.F. Green both led the Foreign Relations Committee, and John Chafee led the Environment and Public Works Committee – but Armed Services is a particularly high-profile committee, and leading it would increase Reed’s clout and visibility in Washington.

In addition to giving Reed more influence over foreign policy and the massive Pentagon budget generally, becoming chairman would give him more of a say in the future of Rhode Island’s defense sector, notably Naval Station Newport and Electric Boat’s Quonset operation. But it will only happen if Democrats win the Senate; otherwise, John McCain is expected to remain chairman.

Rhode Islanders will see two big changes in the way they vote.

New ballot technologyTuesday’s election will provide the first major test of Rhode Island’s new voting machines; they were used in the September primary, but very few voters showed up for that election. The 590 new machines still use paper ballots, but they have a new user interface and will transmit results to the Board of Elections over a wireless connection. Some polling locations will also be using new electronic poll books to check in voters.

Another change this year: no master lever. Rhode Island lawmakers voted in 2014 to eliminate straight-ticket voting, where a voter could check a party at the top of the ballot to cast a vote for all its candidates, effective this year. Roughly one in four voters used the straight-ticket option in 2012, mostly picking the Democratic Party.

Brian Jencunas, a Republican strategist active in the state, said he doesn’t expect the change to result in a huge shift to Republicans. “If the master lever were the key to Democratic dominance in Rhode Island, the General Assembly never would have abolished it,” he said. “The vast majority of voters who used it will still vote straight-ticket, it will just take them a few more seconds.” However, he said, it could allow a Republican candidate such as Cranston Mayor Allan Fung to pick up a few more votes from Hillary Clinton supporters, which could help in a tight race.

Massachusetts might legalize pot, and Rhode Island might react.

MarijuanaQuestion 4 in Massachusetts could have ripple effects across Southern New England. Bay State voters will decide Tuesday whether to legalize and regulate the recreational use of marijuana, with the change set to take effect Dec. 15 if it passes. The “yes” side has led in every poll conducted since September, suggesting Massachusetts could become the first state east of Colorado to legalize the drug.

Rhode Island leaders, including Gov. Gina Raimondo, have taken a largely wait-and-see approach to marijuana legalization as they watched the debate unfold in Massachusetts. But they’ve suggested that if Massachusetts does choose to legalize, Rhode Island policymakers will quickly decide whether to follow suit in order to avoid losing a competitive advantage in the potentially lucrative market for legal pot.

Ted Nesi (tnesi@wpri.com) covers politics and the economy for WPRI.com. He writes The Saturday Morning Post and hosts Executive Suite. Follow him on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram