Some ballot questions could draw blank stares

Voters asked to weigh in on complicated, less than clear-cut issues 

ALONG WITH ELECTING candidates to statewide and local offices, voters will be asked to decide four ballot questions in November. Two of them – whether to raise income tax rates on high earners and whether to repeal a law allowing undocumented immigrants to obtain driver’s licenses – are fairly clear-cut, even if the arguments of those on competing sides on the questions are not. The other two questions, however, are anything but straightforward.

Question 2 would remake state regulation of dental insurers, requiring that they devote at least 83 percent of premium dollars they collect to payments for dental services. Question 3 would rejigger state law regulating retail alcohol licenses, doubling the number of licenses – all-alcohol as well as beer and wine – a retailer could hold from 9 to 18, but also capping the number of all-alcohol licenses a retailer could hold at 7 – unless they already hold more than 7. 

These two questions follow in a long, if not necessarily glorious, tradition of arcane issues being put to voters to decide. 

Four years ago, voters were asked whether the state should set minimum nurse-to-patient staffing ratios for various health care settings. The ballot campaign saw millions of dollars spent by the two sides, which relied largely on 30-second ads to persuade voters on a very complicated health care question that involved detailed issues of hospital staffing practices, health care costs, and patient safety. 

While some ballot questions are easy to understand and form an opinion on, many are not, said Rachael Cobb, a political science professor at Suffolk University. “It’s a lot to put on people to have to do the research, because these are not straightforward,” she said. “There’s a good reason that we have a representative democracy where we give power to representatives to gain knowledge on topics. There’s a high information cost for citizens to make complicated decisions that are going to have wide ranging ramifications on insurance structures or commerce in the state,” she said of the November questions on dental care and alcohol licensing. 

Cobb said the voter information guide produced by the secretary of state’s office and the summary that appears on the ballot may try to help voters, but they often don’t make things any clearer. The summaries from the competing sides on Question 2 that voters will see on their ballot are a case in point. 

“Insurance companies will try to confuse voters by saying that dental insurance premiums will increase. This is false, because Section 2(d) of the law specifically disallows increases above the consumer price index without state approval,” reads the summary from the “yes” side, which is backed by dentists. 

“This question will increase costs for Massachusetts families and employers — a 38%-premium-increase in one recent independent study — and could result in thousands of people losing access to dental care,” reads the summary from the “no” side, backed by insurers. 

On the alcohol license measure, Jon Hurst, president of the Retailers Association of Massachusetts, said his organization’s board voted in May to oppose the question but the group is not taking any active role in the campaign because it has members on both sides of the issue. 

“I don’t think people really understand it,” Hurst said of the public’s knowledge of the issue. “Is this going to help me? The voter isn’t going to understand which is better for them.” 

Hurst said the impact either way may be small, since lots of licensing decisions are controlled at the municipal level.

While the measure would double the total number of licenses a retailer could hold, it was put forward by the package liquor store industry as a compromise against a competing measure they feared would be pushed by convenience stores and other retailers to lift the cap entirely on how many beer and wine licenses a company could hold. Hurst said his group opposed the ballot question because they generally favor “more consumer choice, less government regulation.” 

He said at one point it was expected that there would be an attempt to broker a compromise between the two sides in the Legislature. ​​”Everyone would get around the table with the Tackey Chans of the world,” he said, referring to the House co-chair of the Joint Committee on Consumer Protection and Professional Licensure.

But Cumberland Farms, which has for years pushed for no limits on the number of beer and wine licenses a company can hold, did not pursue a competing ballot question, leaving the measure backed by package store owners to go forward alone to the ballot. Along with its changes to license caps, Question 3 would change the way fines are levied for violating alcohol laws from a percentage of alcohol sales to a percentage of all store sales. That change would hit hardest at package stores’ competitors – supermarkets or places like Costco or BJ’s, which sell everything from beer to computers. 

Hurst calls the add-on “mean-spirited and unnecessary,” but said it looked like the sort of thing that was intended to serve as “trade bait,” something inserted in a proposal that could be negotiated away as part of a compromise deal struck in the Legislature. But that never happened, so it’s now just one more element of the question voters will have to decide on.

The legislative process may be better suited to deal with complex issues, but the ballot question process serves as a safety value, allowing things to come to a vote when lawmakers refuse to touch a controversial topic. 

“When it comes to democracy, is it possible to have too much of a good thing?” asked former state representative John McDonough in a deep-dive look two decades ago in CommonWealth at the state’s referendum process

Meet the Author

Michael Jonas

Executive Editor, CommonWealth

About Michael Jonas

Michael Jonas has worked in journalism in Massachusetts since the early 1980s. Before joining the CommonWealth staff in early 2001, he was a contributing writer for the magazine for two years. His cover story in CommonWealth's Fall 1999 issue on Boston youth outreach workers was selected for a PASS (Prevention for a Safer Society) Award from the National Council on Crime and Delinquency.

Michael got his start in journalism at the Dorchester Community News, a community newspaper serving Boston's largest neighborhood, where he covered a range of urban issues. Since the late 1980s, he has been a regular contributor to the Boston Globe. For 15 years he wrote a weekly column on local politics for the Boston Sunday Globe's City Weekly section.

Michael has also worked in broadcast journalism. In 1989, he was a co-producer for "The AIDS Quarterly," a national PBS series produced by WGBH-TV in Boston, and in the early 1990s, he worked as a producer for "Our Times," a weekly magazine program on WHDH-TV (Ch. 7) in Boston.

Michael lives in Dorchester with his wife and their two daughters.

About Michael Jonas

Michael Jonas has worked in journalism in Massachusetts since the early 1980s. Before joining the CommonWealth staff in early 2001, he was a contributing writer for the magazine for two years. His cover story in CommonWealth's Fall 1999 issue on Boston youth outreach workers was selected for a PASS (Prevention for a Safer Society) Award from the National Council on Crime and Delinquency.

Michael got his start in journalism at the Dorchester Community News, a community newspaper serving Boston's largest neighborhood, where he covered a range of urban issues. Since the late 1980s, he has been a regular contributor to the Boston Globe. For 15 years he wrote a weekly column on local politics for the Boston Sunday Globe's City Weekly section.

Michael has also worked in broadcast journalism. In 1989, he was a co-producer for "The AIDS Quarterly," a national PBS series produced by WGBH-TV in Boston, and in the early 1990s, he worked as a producer for "Our Times," a weekly magazine program on WHDH-TV (Ch. 7) in Boston.

Michael lives in Dorchester with his wife and their two daughters.

It’s a nuanced and thoughtful examination of the issue, and holds up pretty well today. McDonough’s conclusion: “Voter initiatives may not be the best way to craft public policy, but they’re not the worst, either. In Massachusetts, the initiative process has, on balance, done more good than harm. It’s given citizens a voice on important controversies, and it’s compelled action when the Legislature preferred not to take any, especially on matters affecting legislators’ own behavior.”