Questions about ballot questions

Confusing ads and dueling studies sure to fog voters’ minds

WITH PRIMARIES OUT OF THE WAY and the November elections bearing down on voters, the push for two of the three referendums on the ballot is beginning to heat up.

The onslaught of dueling data is just beginning to hit stride as both sides will tout studies and grab onto fungible facts that boost their position or, preferably, cut the legs out of their opponents.

Question 1, which would put a cap on nurse-patient ratios in hospitals, has been getting the most air time in commercials so far, with nurses saying the mandate would improve patient safety by ensuring adequate care while nurses say an inflexible cap would impair hospital operations and not allow for putting resources where they are needed.

If that’s confusing, that’s the intent. The “No” group is backed by the state’s hospitals and they’ve used nurses as the spokesmen and women for their message. Deceptive? Perhaps, but a very wise and effective move.

“The nurses speak very rationally, they speak with compassion, they speak in professional settings,” Boston University communications professor and political consultant Tobe Berkovitz told the Boston Globe. “What the ‘No’ people have done is started framing the question as one where the nurses are the experts, and the nurses say no.”

But what’s misleading is the question was backed and placed on the ballot by the Massachusetts Nurses Association, the labor union representing many of the state’s nurses. They say the hospitals are purposely absconding the message to confuse voters and the union has launched its own commercials.

“There’s a disingenuous quality, because we know the hospital executives are behind it,” union spokeswoman Kate Norton told the Globe. “This is [backed by] hospital executives, and this is about money to them.”

But it’s not just the commercials that are obfuscating the issue for voters. A study by Boston College professor Judith Shindul-Rothschild claims that passage of the question would not be an undue burden on hospitals. Her study shows that nine hospitals, including Massachusetts General Hospital, already meet the proposed staffing mandate while 37 of the state’s 67 acute care hospitals that she studied would only have to shift 3 percent of their budget from administrative and non-direct care to registered nursing staff to meet the ratio. Her estimate is the ballot question would cost between $35 million to $47 million, as opposed to the $1 billion estimate from the hospital association.

But while the nurses’ association flags the study as proof of their position, it surely will be spun by hospitals to show that they are already close to the staffing levels without statutory interference.

A similar battle of smoke is underway on the referendum to overturn the new state law regarding transgender rights, with the backers of the question focusing on bathroom safety for children. Some say the wording of the ballot question is confusing, in that voters may be unclear what their Yes or No vote means. To be clear, a “yes” vote retains the law while “no” repeals it. (The third question on the ballot would create a citizens commission to study a potential amendment to the US Constitution regarding corporate campaign contributions, overturning the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision.)

A study by the Williams Institute at the University of California Los Angeles found there has been no increase in bathroom crime in Massachusetts communities that adopted transgender rights bylaws in the two years before of the state law in 2016.

Meet the Author

Jack Sullivan

Senior Investigative Reporter, CommonWealth

About Jack Sullivan

Jack Sullivan is a veteran of the Boston newspaper scene for nearly three decades. Prior to joining CommonWealth, he was editorial page editor of The Patriot Ledger in Quincy, a part of the GateHouse Media chain. Prior to that he was news editor at another GateHouse paper, The Enterprise of Brockton, and also was city edition editor at the Ledger. Jack was an investigative and enterprise reporter and executive city editor at the Boston Herald and a reporter at The Boston Globe.

He has reported stories such as the federal investigation into the Teamsters, the workings of the Yawkey Trust and sale of the Red Sox, organized crime, the church sex abuse scandal and the September 11 terrorist attacks. He has covered the State House, state and local politics, K-16 education, courts, crime, and general assignment.

Jack received the New England Press Association award for investigative reporting for a series on unused properties owned by the Catholic Archdiocese of Boston, and shared the association's award for business for his reporting on the sale of the Boston Red Sox. As the Ledger editorial page editor, he won second place in 2007 for editorial writing from the Inland Press Association, the nation's oldest national journalism association of nearly 900 newspapers as members.

At CommonWealth, Jack and editor Bruce Mohl won first place for In-Depth Reporting from the Association of Capitol Reporters and Editors for a look at special education funding in Massachusetts. The same organization also awarded first place to a unique collaboration between WFXT-TV (FOX25) and CommonWealth for a series of stories on the Boston Redevelopment Authority and city employees getting affordable housing units, written by Jack and Bruce.

A Boston native, Jack has lived in Massachusetts all his life. He was a major in English and history with a minor in political science at the University of Massachusetts, Boston. A father and grandfather, he lives in Plymouth with his wife, Susan.

About Jack Sullivan

Jack Sullivan is a veteran of the Boston newspaper scene for nearly three decades. Prior to joining CommonWealth, he was editorial page editor of The Patriot Ledger in Quincy, a part of the GateHouse Media chain. Prior to that he was news editor at another GateHouse paper, The Enterprise of Brockton, and also was city edition editor at the Ledger. Jack was an investigative and enterprise reporter and executive city editor at the Boston Herald and a reporter at The Boston Globe.

He has reported stories such as the federal investigation into the Teamsters, the workings of the Yawkey Trust and sale of the Red Sox, organized crime, the church sex abuse scandal and the September 11 terrorist attacks. He has covered the State House, state and local politics, K-16 education, courts, crime, and general assignment.

Jack received the New England Press Association award for investigative reporting for a series on unused properties owned by the Catholic Archdiocese of Boston, and shared the association's award for business for his reporting on the sale of the Boston Red Sox. As the Ledger editorial page editor, he won second place in 2007 for editorial writing from the Inland Press Association, the nation's oldest national journalism association of nearly 900 newspapers as members.

At CommonWealth, Jack and editor Bruce Mohl won first place for In-Depth Reporting from the Association of Capitol Reporters and Editors for a look at special education funding in Massachusetts. The same organization also awarded first place to a unique collaboration between WFXT-TV (FOX25) and CommonWealth for a series of stories on the Boston Redevelopment Authority and city employees getting affordable housing units, written by Jack and Bruce.

A Boston native, Jack has lived in Massachusetts all his life. He was a major in English and history with a minor in political science at the University of Massachusetts, Boston. A father and grandfather, he lives in Plymouth with his wife, Susan.

Proponents of the law, naturally, seized on the report as evidence that those seeking to repeal it are reaching for thin air to back their fearmongering. But the “Vote No on 3” campaign questioned the legitimacy of the study, asking why they weren’t notified of it before its release.

“If it’s unbiased, wouldn’t they send it to both campaigns?” Yvette Ollada, a spokeswoman for the campaign, asked.

For the next six weeks, there will be plenty of those questions to ask.