Spending on ballot questions breaks records    

A summary of Ballot Question 2 on the Nov. 3 Massachusetts election ballot known as a "Ranked Choice Voting" law is displayed in a handbook provided to voters by the Secretary of the Commonwealth. Voters sent the question down to defeat in the Nov. 3 election.  (Bill Sikes/AP file photo)


BOSTON — Fundraising committees behind two statewide ballot questions poured more than $60.7 million into their campaigns, making it one of the most expensive election cycles in recent years.

But the big spending — which paid for prime-time TV ads, glossy mailers and other materials — produced mixed results in Tuesday’s election.

Question 1, which was overwhelmingly approved by voters, will update the state’s right-to-repair law to allow independent auto repair shops to access "telematics" data from vehicles beginning in 2022.

Opponents of the measure out-raised and out-spent supporters, but the measure still won by a landslide, 75% to 25%, according to preliminary results.

Meanwhile, supporters of Question 2, who sought to switch the state’s election system to ranked-choice voting, vastly out-raised opponents but still came up short. The measure failed, 54% to 45%.

Fundraising in the ballot fight was lopsided from the outset.

The Yes on 2 campaign, supporting ranked-choice voting, raised nearly $10 million as of Oct. 15, with a sizable chunk of money coming from out of state, according to the state Office of Campaign and Political Finance.

The No on 2 campaign, which consisted mostly of local Republican Party committees, raised about $3,500, disclosures show.

"The conventional wisdom with ballot questions is that voters usually default to the no, or status quo, position, " said John Cluverius, a political science professor and associate director of the University of Massachusetts Lowell's Center for Public Opinion. "It’s hard to buy your way to yes, but it’s easy to buy your way to no."

Cluverius said backers of Question 1 were outspent but did a better job selling the issue. Question 2 was more complicated and asked voters to step out of their comfort zone to scrap an election system that has been used for hundreds of years, so opponents had the advantage.

"What Tuesday's results showed is that voters are distrustful of the big car companies but also voting reforms that they don’t quite understand," he said.

Collectively, the ballot questions are on track to break fundraising records. Figures for this election cycle are expected to rise when ballot committees submit final fundraising reports after the election.

In Massachusetts, the sky's the limit for contributions to ballot question committees. Unlike contributions to individual candidates, donations to referendum campaigns are unrestricted, and corporations often get involved as do special interests, labor unions and others.

Big spending has produced mixed results in Massachusetts in the past.

Supporters of charter schools pumped more than $28 million into a 2016 ballot question to expand the taxpayer-funded schools. While charter supporters vastly out-raised opponents, the question was overwhelmingly defeated by a majority of the state's voters, or about 60% of those who cast ballots.

In 2014, voters approved a question repealing a law indexing the state gas tax to inflation, even though supporters of the question were outspent 10 to 1.

Cluverius said he expects spending to continue to rise as more groups seek to use Massachusetts as a test ground for changes in public policy.

"There's no incentive to spend less," he said. "If anything we’re only going to see more spending on these kinds of initiatives in the future."

Christian M. Wade covers the Massachusetts Statehouse for North of Boston Media Group’s newspapers and websites. Email him at cwade@cnhi.com.



Spending on Statewide Ballot Questions

Year Total Ballot Questions Total Spent

2020 2 *$60.7 million

Most expensive Question: Question 1: Amending the state’s Right to Repair law. Total spent by both sides: *$50.7 million.

2018 3 $43.1 million

Most Expensive Question - "Patient-to-Nurse Limits" to set nurse staffing limits at Massachusetts hospitals. Total spent by both sides: $37.2 million.

2016 4 $60.8 million

Most Expensive Question - "An Act to Allow Fair Access to Public Charter Schools" to expand taxpayer-funded charter schools. Question failed with about 38 percent in favor, 60 percent against. Total spent by both sides: $44.3 million

2014 4 $15.7 million

Most Expensive Question - "Expanding prohibitions on Gaming" to repeal state's casino gambling law. Question failed with 40 percent in favor, 60 percent against. Total spent by both sides: $15.7 million

2012 3 $9.6 million

Most Expensive Question - "Death with Dignity" on allowing physician-assisted suicide. Question failed with 49 percent in favor, 51 percent against. Total spent by both sides: $5.9 million

Sources: Office of Campaign and Political Finance, Secretary of the Commonwealth, news reports. *As of Oct. 15, 2020.



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