September 5, 2019
Potential ballot question campaigns were cleared for takeoff Wednesday, and voters next year could decide the fate of proposals dealing with immigration law enforcement, liability for gun crimes, ranked choice voting, and access to vehicle repair information, among others.
Attorney General Maura Healey announced her certification Wednesday of several initiative petitions as ballot eligible.
Healey also certified proposed constitutional amendments that would restore the voting rights of incarcerated Massachusetts felons and stipulate that there is no requirement for public funding of abortion. Those measures could reach the ballot in 2022 if supporters are able to clear significant hurdles before then. An income surtax on the wealthy, proposed as a legislative amendment to the constitution, is already on track for the 2022 ballot.
Overall, Healey certified 12 initiative petitions, a hurdle that any potential statewide ballot question must clear. The proposals cover 11 topics, one fewer than the total number of active petitions because a measure related to persons with disabilities was filed and approved twice.
In addition to ballot proposals to cap state employee sick time payouts, boost nursing home funding and create alcohol licenses for food stores, Healey certified two different initiatives that would codify a ban on any state-funded treatment that harms individuals with disabilities. The petition targets hitting, pinching, and electric shock "for the purposes of changing the behavior of the person or punishing the person."
Healey declined to certify four proposed laws that would expand the Legislature's ability to limit political spending and contributions by corporations, manage fishing equipment to ensure whale safety, place the top two finishers in a primary election regardless of party on the general election ballot, and create a commission to limit human-rights risks from technology.
Healey's office said her certification decisions were based on constitutional requirements and do not reflect her support or opposition for any of the proposals.
If backers of the prisoner voting rights amendment are successful, thousands of Massachusetts residents in prison on felony convictions would once again be allowed to vote, a right they had until it was revoked by a constitutional amendment that was approved in 2000.
Austin Frizzell, an organizer with the Mass POWER campaign leading the effort, said the change would likely affect about 9,200 incarcerated residents currently in state prison, citing statistics from the Prison Policy Institute. People who have completed felony sentences, inmates in local jails and parolees can vote in Massachusetts, he said, "though access to ballots is often difficult."
"We know our criminal justice system disproportionately and unjustly targets people of color, especially Black communities, and therefore it is also a system of voter repression," Frizzell said in a press release. "The right to vote is fundamental and removing it does not contribute to healing for our state."
The push comes amid similar efforts elsewhere in the country. In Florida, voters approved a ballot question last year to re-enfranchise about 1.5 million individuals with felony convictions, though the state Legislature then passed a law limiting those rights and was quickly challenged in court.
In April, the Joint Committee on Election Laws in Massachusetts gave an adverse report to a similar proposal looking to restore felon voting rights through a legislative constitutional amendment.
The abortion-related proposal had cleared Healey's review in 2017, but supporters did not secure enough signatures to advance their measure further in the process.
They will renew their efforts now after the call for a constitutional amendment, which would add a line to the state Constitution saying there is no requirement to publicly fund abortion, was certified by Healey.
Proposals for changes to state law cover a range of topics, from allowing police cooperation with federal immigration authorities to capping political donations from non-Massachusetts residents and entities.
One of the petitions would update the 2013 state law on access to diagnostic information for vehicle repairs, requiring manufacturers to make digital repair information accessible. Proponents say that as technology advances, it has grown more complicated for independent repair shops to handle various car needs.
"These shops are increasingly facing the prospect of having limited or no access to diagnostic and repair information now that automakers are restricting access through rapidly expanding wireless technologies in vehicles," said Massachusetts Right to Repair Coalition Director Tommy Hickey in a statement. "We need to update Right to Repair to keep pace (with) the massive growth of digital and wireless technologies cars over the last 6 years."
Automakers plan to oppose the effort, and Conor Yunits, a spokesperson for the Coalition for Safe and Secure Data, said the change would expose personal driving data to third parties and create privacy risks.
"This ballot proposal is not about who can fix your car; it is about how many companies and people have remote access to your driving habits, patterns and location in real-time," Yunits said in a statement. "Automakers already provide all information needed to repair and diagnose a vehicle today and will continue to in the future."
Another proposal Healey certified would implement a ranked-choice voting system for most elections in Massachusetts, a proposal that has drawn attention on Beacon Hill and has been suggested in several separate pieces of legislation.
The version as outlined in the initiative would apply to most statewide or legislative elections, excluding president, with two or more candidates on the ballot.
Voters would rank the candidates in their order of preference, and if no single person receives an outright majority of number-one votes, runoffs would occur in which the lowest-ranked candidate is eliminated and ballots are redistributed to whoever that candidate's voters selected as their next choice. The process would repeat until someone received at least 50 percent of the vote.
A similar system is in place in Maine.
"Massachusetts voters want a stronger voice when we cast our ballots, and it’s just common sense to make sure that our elected leaders are supported by a true majority," said Mac D'Alessandro, campaign manager of the Voter Choice for Massachusetts group pushing for the change. "Ranked Choice Voting would give voters the option to rank candidates in the order they prefer them, empowering and re-energizing Massachusetts voters at a critical time in our democracy."
Other petitions reflect ongoing debates at the State House. While lawmakers again weigh whether to support the Safe Communities Act — which would effectively create a firewall between local law enforcement and federal immigration authorities — one proposed ballot question would explicitly allow police to detain suspects wanted by Immigration and Customs Enforcement in some cases.
Cape and Islands District Attorney Michael O'Keefe was the lead proponent on the immigration initiative. Top signatures backing the idea include Bristol County Sheriff Thomas Hodgson, Worcester County Sheriff Lewis Evangelidis, Barnstable County Sheriff James Cummings, Republican legislators Rep. William Crocker, Rep. Norman Orrall and Sen. Dean Tran, Democratic Rep. Colleen Garry, Gardner Mayor Mark Hawke and others.
Another initiative would change state law so that all gun owners, including Massachusetts residents and out-of-state visitors, would be held "equally responsible for any and all actions and crimes committed" with any weapons they own, regardless of whether they provided the firearms intentionally. It would also require every gun owner to obtain a certified gun safe.
To stay on track for the ballot, supporters of the proposed laws must collect signatures from 80,239 registered voters by Dec. 4, after which the Legislature will get an opportunity to act on the issues. If lawmakers do not address the measures, supporters can gather additional signatures to force a November 2020 ballot question.
Signature-gathering has been an obstacle for many initiatives in the past. In 2017, Healey deemed 20 proposed laws eligible to proceed, but only seven cleared the signature threshold. One related to an income surtax was later tossed by the Supreme Judicial Court, while three dealing with the sales tax, minimum wage, and paid leave were abandoned after lawmakers worked them into last year's so-called "grand bargain" agreement.
The two constitutional amendment proposals must secure approval from at least 25 percent of the House and Senate acting jointly in two separate two-year lawmaking sessions. If that threshold is cleared, they will appear on the November 2022 ballot.