December 4, 2016

Sina-cism: Do ballot questions matter much?

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Wikimedia Commons/Hsin Ju HSU

Massachusetts State House

There wasn’t much drama in Massachusetts on Election Day. As expected, Democrat Hillary Clinton easily won our deep-as-the-deep-blue-sea state. No incumbent state representative or state senator, Democrat or Republican, was unseated.

Chris Sinacola

Chris Sinacola

About the only excitement was generated by four ballot questions.

About $50 million — much of it dark money, and from out-of-state — was spent on those four questions. About 80 percent of that, some $40 million, was spent on Question 2, which would have allowed for an increase in public charter school enrollments. Another $5 million or so was spent trying to persuade or dissuade voters on the legalization of marijuana for personal adult use. A little more than $1 million was wasted in a doomed effort to obtain a slots license for one particular proposal associated with Suffolk Downs — an obvious abuse of the initiative process. And about another million dollars was expended on Question 3, regarding the treatment of certain farm animals.

So, $50 million spent, and for what? Not much.

OK, maybe you believe legalizing the personal use of marijuana marks a watershed moment in the history of a once-staid Puritan commonwealth, the dawn of an enlightened libertarian age. Or maybe you believe it marks a further acceleration of our moral decline.

Smoke all you want, but let's think about this ...

Flickr/Martin Alonso

Smoke all you want, but let’s think about this …

It’s neither. Those who smoke marijuana have never been dissuaded from doing so by its illegality. Those who smoke it discreetly and in moderation tend not to run into problems with the law. On the other side, those who have never been interested in cultivating, growing, smoking or selling marijuana aren’t likely to start because of a minor change in the law.

The other ballot questions are similarly modest in their reach. Two of them, after all — on a slots license and charter schools — made no change to existing laws. The last question, mandating better treatment of some farm animals, affects few if any Massachusetts farmers. Assuming the law sticks — its effect on interstate commerce could draw a challenge — the effect on egg prices is likely to be small, and enforcement difficult.

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If, in spite of the piles of money and glut of media attention expended on these ballot questions, they were never bound to be all that impactful, then when — if ever — have Massachusetts voters made a significant change through the ballot question process?

Only rarely.

Since the initiative process was created in 1918, voters have considered 179 ballot questions. Some even-numbered election years offered no questions, while there were nine questions in 1972, 1976, and 2002. But how many questions were truly landmark initiatives, marking a real shift in the direction of public policy?

I would offer these five:

  • Question 2, passed in 1924, enabled women to hold any state, county, or municipal office in Massachusetts. Nearly a century later, we shake our heads in disbelief that this was ever an issue, but women had gained the right to vote nationally only in 1920. Something like Question 2 was inevitable, but better that the Bay State acted promptly.
  • In 1926, voters passed Question 1, which allowed towns to adopt representative town meeting. While open town meeting is often called the purest form of democracy on the planet, it can also be unwieldy. Residents of Shrewsbury and Framingham, two communities with representative town meeting, should be thankful for what happened 90 years ago — even if nearly half of voters left the question blank.
  • In 1930, 52 percent of voters rejected the “Baby Volstead Act,” essentially telling Massachusetts officials to stop enforcing Prohibition, the U.S. constitutional amendment that banned the production, sale and consumption of alcoholic beverages from 1920 to 1933. While Prohibition was formally repealed nationwide three years later, the 1930 vote illustrates how Massachusetts voters have consistently — if sometimes slowly — embraced more personal freedom.
  • The home rule process, much valued by cities and towns, was approved by a strong majority on Question 4 on the 1966 ballot. Home rule ensures that cities and towns enjoy significant autonomy, although certain actions are subject to approval of the state Legislature.
  • Finally, the passage of Proposition 2½ in 1980 established an important and enduring limit on the taxing power of cities and towns. Without it, I have no doubt that many cities and towns would have exhibited far less fiscal discipline over the last 35 years, to the detriment of all.

A ballot initiative process that only rarely produces a truly significant result is not a process that is broken. Democracy in Massachusetts is alive and well, and the ballot question is an important part of giving citizens a real voice in government.

History’s verdict, though, is equally clear: The time, money and emotions invested in pushing for or against Massachusetts ballot questions are usually out of proportion to their long-term impact.

Chris Sinacola is a Worcester Sun columnist. His observations on politics, current events, history and more appear every Sunday.

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