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.
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.”
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.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.”