The Electoral College chooses the President, but direct democracy still has its day in the statewide ballot measures.
Most of the electoral tension this time of year concerns the presidency or Congress, the “big ticket” issues voters will decide come November 6th. But it’s important to remember that they aren’t the only things on the ballot. Alongside state and local representatives, there’s also the matter of ballot questions. Massachusetts voters will face three this year, all attracting significant controversy while promising substantial change. The Commonwealth provides short explanations of each measure and the consequences of a “Yes” or “No” vote, but it’s no substitute for research ahead of time. Luckily, there’s still time to study up.
Topping the list this November is the so-called “right to repair” initiative, easily the more complicated of the three questions. The proposal would compel vehicle manufacturers to provide the same diagnostic and repair information to consumers and independent mechanics as they do to their authorized repair shops. The problem is that a last-minute legislative compromise earlier this year already enacted its measures, albeit with lighter penalties for noncompliance. Proponents foresaw Beacon Hill deadlock and used the threat of voter override to force lawmakers into action. But the compromise came after it had already been approved for the ballot box.
In a rare agreement, both major Boston newspapers urge voters to skip the question or vote “No.” The Boston Globe points out that the compromise effort would brand noncompliance “an unfair or deceptive practice” subject to existing consumer protection laws. Kicking in by 2018, it’s “a fair deal that both honors the art of compromise and gives the companies involved some time to adjust.” The Herald is more direct, charging that proponents are “playing games with the democratic process” by forcing the legislature’s hand. If approved, the ballot measure would go further than the bill; noncomplying manufacturers would be forbidden to sell vehicles in the Commonwealth altogether.
To make a definitive recommendation here is difficult. Local papers rightly note that Question 1’s failure would preserve consumer protection in the existing legislation without muddying the legal waters. On the other hand, the bill’s safeguards aren’t absolute and may require costly judicial enforcement. Proponents aren’t wrong to suggest harsher (and automatic) penalties for manufacturers, but the ballot measure could go too far. Whatever voters decide, consumers ultimately come out more secure than they were a year ago. That, at the very least, is something worth celebrating.
The second initiative is clearer but no less controversial. Aiming to legalize physician-assisted suicide for terminally-ill patients, the “Death with Dignity” measure promises fiery debate right up to Election Day. The right-leaning Herald, Christians, and some medical groups have condemned the initiative as immoral and unwise, but their objections aren’t having much effect. Though they’ve raised significantly more funding than pro-Question patient rights and AIDS groups, a September poll conducted by Suffolk University showed that 64% of Bay Staters backed the measure. The numbers haven’t budged since.
Its opponents aren’t without reason. Diagnoses can be inaccurate and patients illogical, and there’s always the possibility of an against-all-odds recovery. Their arguments are compelling, but not enough. The Globe has the right of it: “it’s not Kevorkian, and it’s certainly not a Palin-inspired “death panel.” The measure’s safeguards prevent knee-jerk decisions while enshrining patient autonomy above social dissent. There’s an important difference between state-sponsored euthanasia, as some allege the Question promotes, and giving the terminally-ill control of their own lives. We already protect a woman’s right to choose, why not a patient’s?
It’s certainly possible that, under the proposed law, some would choose to end their lives when a solution may have presented itself. Each and every instance will be tragic, the deceased mourned for what could have been. No one wants to see their parent die when they needn’t or a sibling go before their time, but that has never passed as a compelling state interest. Too many good men and women have been reduced to crude, bloody suicide when all hope seemed lost. The least society can do in such cases is allow them a peaceful end to their pain.
Last but not least is the ballot measure every Massachusetts resident knew was coming; the legalization of medical marijuana. Simply put, the proposal would eliminate existing criminal and civil penalties for medical usage and establish state-regulated distribution centers a la California. It enjoys widespread support and will almost certainly become law, but not before several powerful interests make their opposition known. The Massachusetts Chiefs of Police Association has urged voters to reject Question 3 for its alleged vagueness and their fears that it may lead to general legalization. The Herald and Massachusetts Medical Society likewise oppose its passage, claiming few studies demonstrate legitimate medical application. The most recent research out of the University of California says otherwise.
Setting the medical argument aside, Attorney General Martha Coakley warns that legalization would create a “huge headache” for state officials. The same was said against ending Prohibition or school desegregation. As the first example taught America, criminalizing a widely accepted substance is a no-win scenario for government while lawful regulation raises revenue and public safety. The United States has long allowed the use (and even overuse) of objectively harmful drugs such as alcohol or tobacco while banning marijuana with little rationale. Considering its relative safety and medical applications, legalization seems a no-brainer. Sixty-nine percent of Bay Staters agree.
Ultimately, these are just a few voices of the many who’ll speak at the polls next week. These and other issues will be decided by the voters, all of whom should take part whatever their beliefs. The three ballot questions, however, may be just as vital as the race for the White House or control of Congress. Massachusetts has long been a model for America, from same-sex marriage to universal healthcare. The nation will be watching our latest exercise in democracy, and it may prove just as pivotal.