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Council in the News

Ballot question season already at a boil

Attorney general green-lights several contested initiatives

THE FIRST REAL starting shot of the state ballot question cycle has been fired, kicking several high profile campaigns into high gear and already raising the specter of legal challenges. Voters in 2024 and 2026 could be weighing MCAS requirements, rent control, the employment status of app-based drivers, and even decriminalizing psychedelics among the potential smorgasbord of ballot initiatives given initial approval to appear on the ballot by Attorney General Andrea Campbell on Wednesday.

Campbell’s office approved most of the 42 initiative petitions submitted – 31 proposed laws and 3 proposed constitutional amendments. The attorney general’s office emphasized that her rulings are not a reflection of her opinion of the ballot questions, but only a conclusion on whether they pass constitutional muster. 

Despite the large number of petitions approved, the prospect of a California-esque referendum season with upward of a dozen measures on state and local ballots is unlikely. Backers of several of the initiatives submitted multiple versions of a ballot question, including one petition with eight versions and one with nine, to make sure at least one of them met with approval. Back-of-the-napkin math puts the actual number of unique initiatives at 15.

The next step for backers is to collect nearly 75,000 signatures in the coming months. 

Proponents of one of the most hotly debated measures are ready to “kickstart” signature gathering, with a Massachusetts Teachers Association-backed initiative to remove the MCAS requirement for high school graduation set for a bruising showdown next year.

“Today’s decision by the state attorney general’s office will allow us to make the case directly to voters at the ballot box as to why we must replace the harmful graduation requirement tied to the MCAS exams,” MTA president Max Page and vice president Deb McCarthy said in a statement. “This ballot initiative would make students eligible for a high school diploma if, among other requirements, they complete coursework demonstrating mastery of competencies in our state’s high academic standards.”

A coalition of business and education groups, who objected to the ballot measure’s certification in August, said its members are “prepared to fight this measure.”

“MCAS has proven to be a reliable indicator of a student’s college and career readiness and eliminating it as a graduation requirement would amount to a huge step backward in the Commonwealth’s quest to ensure that all Massachusetts high school graduates acquire a basic mastery of the subject areas needed to be successful in their futures,” members of the group, including the Massachusetts Business Alliance for Education, Massachusetts High Technology Council, Pioneer Institute, and Democrats for Education Reform, said in a joint statement

Campbell also signed off on a grab bag of ballot measures, including two versions of an initiative that would allow people 21 or older to grow, possess, and consume certain natural psychedelic substances or buy and consume these substances under licensed supervision. 

Other petitions that made the cut would establish an Indigenous Peoples Day, require tipped workers to be paid the minimum wage with tips on top, allow for election day voter registration, and cap the state’s gas tax when gasoline prices are above $2 or $3 a gallon.

An extended tangle between state Auditor Diana DiZoglio and the Legislature, which she wants to audit, may come down to the populace. DiZoglio asked Campbell to wade into imbroglio in an official capacity in July, as Senate and House leaders claiming she lacks the authority have so far stonewalled her attempted audit. 

The state auditor is taking the question to the ballot process with a simple, now certified, petition granting her that authority. 

Most initiatives fizzle out before voters ever have to weigh in. Some miss signature requirements, or get tossed by the Supreme Judicial Court even if the attorney general signed off. Last time around, only four questions ultimately made it through to the ballot.

Proposed initiatives have to be in the correct form and cannot be “substantially the same” as any measure on the ballot in either of the two preceding statewide elections. The ballot measures also cannot involve a set of issues specifically prohibited – like religion, judges, the courts, particular localities of the Commonwealth, specific appropriations, and certain provisions of the state constitution’s Declaration of Rights.

This is the second try for a ballot question that would classify app-based ride-share and delivery drivers as independent contractors and not employees under Massachusetts law.

A previous attempt to define gig workers as independent contractors and not employees got booted from the ballot by the SJC, which ruled it failed the requirement that questions only include elements that are “related” or “mutually dependent.” To avoid that outcome, the driver coalition backed by ride-hailing and delivery companies submitted nine different versions of the ballot measure, all of which were certified, clearing the way for the coalition to begin signature gathering for a second attempt at reclassifying the workers.

“We’re pleased that the attorney general’s office has certified our ballot proposals to ensure drivers can maintain the flexibility to work when, how often, and for how long they want as independent contractors, while also accessing new benefits and protections. We hope that voters will continue to listen to drivers and support solutions that value choice and freedom,” said Conor Yunits, spokesperson for Flexibility and Benefits for Massachusetts Drivers 2024, in a statement.

Voters may see a pair of ride-share related ballot questions next year, as measure that would guarantee app-based drivers the right to form a union and collectively bargain also made the cut. Drivers and labor organizations including service workers union SEIU 32BJ have been rallying in support of that ballot measure leading up to the attorney general’s decision.

A long road winds ahead for the certified initiatives. They will need to file 74,574 signatures with local registrars by November 22 and with the secretary of state’s office by December 6. Challenging the right of a question to appear on the ballot with the Supreme Judicial Court must wait until certified signatures are submitted.

If state Rep. Mike Connolly’s effort to bring back local-option rent control by ballot – which got the green light from the AG on Wednesday – clears the signature hurdle, landlord and conservative groups say they are ready to take it to court. A flurry of memos opposing and supporting the measure have blanketed the attorney general’s office since it emerged. 

“The attorney general is absolutely wrong on this matter and we fully intend to work with a coalition to take this issue to the State Supreme Judicial Court,” Fiscal Alliance Foundation spokesman Paul Craney said in a statement. The group’s memos argued that the measure includes the unrelated matters of rent control and eviction and essentially takes landlords’ property without just compensation, which would be an excluded matter.

“Massachusetts voters deserve to have their case heard in a less overtly political forum and the Supreme Judicial Court has a long history of removing petitions from the ballot due to incorrect and politicized decisions from the attorney general’s office,” said Craney. “We are confident the citizens of Massachusetts will be able to find a more impartial audience there.”

For the ballot measures that avoid legal challenge and make it past the new year, the Legislature gets to weigh in by May 2024, either opting to approve a measure as is, propose an alternative version, or do nothing. If lawmakers don’t act on a measure, proponents have to collect another 12,000-plus signatures and file them with officials over the early summer.