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Ballot questions perplex Massachusetts voters

  • Lawn signs both for and against Massachusetts’ ballot Question 1, which will be decided in the midterm elections Nov. 6. FILE PHOTO

Staff Writer
Published: 11/1/2018 12:22:29 AM

NORTHAMPTON — With the Nov. 6 elections less than a week away, Massachusetts residents are tasked with deciding on three statewide ballot questions that cover health care, corporate spending in elections and protections for transgender individuals.

Voters in some districts also will see up to two non-binding ballot questions regarding single-payer health care and ranked-choice voting.

But even as voters prepare to go to the polls, the complexity of certain questions can leave some unsure of exactly how to mark their ballots.

Question 1 concerns a proposed law that would limit the number of patients assigned to nurses in hospitals and select other health care facilities. A “yes” vote supports implementing the law requiring patient limits, while a “no” vote opposes the implementation of this law.

Question 2 asks voters if they approve of a proposed law that would establish a state citizens commission to repeal the Supreme Court decision in Citizens United v. FEC, which ruled in favor of allowing corporations and unions unlimited campaign spending.

For Question 3, a “yes” vote supports upholding a 2016 law that prohibits gender identity-based discrimination in public accommodations, such as hospitals, hotels and restaurants. A “no” vote, meanwhile, would support repealing this law.

While a “yes” vote on Questions 1 or 2 changes a current policy, the reverse is true for Question 3. As a result, this question has left some voters confused as to what a “yes” or “no” vote on Question 3 actually means.

The third ballot question has also received criticism for attempting to decide a human rights issue with a referendum.

Clare Higgins, a former Northampton mayor and executive director of Community Action Pioneer Valley, wrote a column, “Five ballot questions to consider,” which appeared in the Oct. 27-28 edition of the Gazette, in which she voiced her opposition to Question 3, calling it “morally wrong” and writing that “human rights should never be the subject of a referendum.”

But because Higgins, who said she is voting “yes,” did not explicitly state her vote in the column, she said that the column led to confusion among some readers, who misunderstood Higgins’ opposition to the referendum as meaning that she planned to vote “no” on Question 3.

“The reason it’s on the ballot is because some people want to repeal that law,” Higgins said of Question 3. “So it’s confusing, because if you support transgender rights and see that this is to repeal the law, you would say, ‘No, I don’t want to repeal that law.’ But the way to keep that law is to vote ‘yes.’ So it’s counterintuitive in a way.”

Higgins said that even after writing the column, she had a moment of doubt as to whether she had understood the question correctly.

“When someone asked me about it, I got confused for a minute… I had to really think it through to go check and confirm that what I’m saying is right,” Higgins said of the column.

Higgins added that she thinks the other questions are “fairly straightforward,” but questioned whether complex issues, such as Question 1, should be decided by a referendum.

“This is why we’ve elected representatives, to kind of puzzle through these very complex questions,” Higgins said.

In addition to the three statewide ballot issues, two additional, non-binding questions are available in certain local districts. Voters in the 1st, 2nd and 3rd Hampshire districts, as well as the 1st Franklin, 5th Hampden and 2nd Berkshire districts, will also vote on Question 4. A “yes” vote on this question encourages state legislators to establish a single-payer health care system.

Ballots in the 1st and 3rd Hampshire districts also include Question 5; a “yes” vote on this question would encourage representatives to support legislation that would establish ranked-choice voting, which allows voters to order their candidates by preference. A “yes” vote supports ranked-choice voting.

Paul M. Collins, Jr., professor and director of legal studies at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, said that he understands why some people might be unclear on the ballot questions, noting that Questions 1 and 3 in particular seemed to be “written in a somewhat confusing manner.”

“Question 1 is a pretty dense description of the law that’s on the ballot, and I could see how people would get confused by it,” Collins said.

Collins added that Question 3 is unusual, and attributed its inclusion on the ballot to discrimination against transgender people

“Generally speaking you don’t have ballot questions with a purpose of reinforcing a law that’s already on the books,” he said.

Ballot questions are sometimes written in an intentionally confusing manner in an attempt to influence election results, Collins said, although he does not think that this is the case with the current ballot questions. Other times, confusion arises because the questions are written without considering the language that voters are most familiar with.

“I think in an ideal world, experts in relaying information in plain English and in other languages can be utilized,” Collins said. “This is a common problem in the political world, that things get bogged down with jargon, and ballot measures are susceptible to this.”

Collins recommends that people confused by the ballot measures seek out nonpartisan descriptions of the ballot questions.

Jacquelyn Voghel can be reached at

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