Ballot Decisions Overshadowed By Presidential Election

This article was originally published in The Westerner on December 1, 2016

Photo Source: Huffington Post

Massachusetts voters addressed four ballot questions in the election on November 8, in addition to voting for the nation’s highest office and a slew of other local positions. For both the questions that were defeated or approved, their impact will be felt in the Bay State.

Question 1 asked voters to support the state allowing an additional slots parlor license, while Question 2 wanted voters to support the expansion of enrollment in existing charter schools or creation of up to 12 new charter schools per year. Both questions were defeated.

Question 3 asked voters to support prohibiting certain methods of farm animal containment, and Question 4 looked to legalize recreational marijuana for individuals 21 or older. Both questions were approved.

As Professor Peter Fairman of the Political Science Department at Western New England University points out, there are pros and cons to ballot questions like the ones seen this election cycle.

“They can force issues we don’t talk about onto our ballot,” Professor Fairman noted, thinking of Question 3 in particular.

“Of course, direct democracy can lead to contradictory democracy. That’s really a repudiation of the people who wrote the Constitution,” Professor Fairman said speaking about concerns with ballot questions.

In an election that as a whole reflected growing distrust in government, it is no wonder that voters were eager to give attention to ballot questions, taking matters into their own hands.

Dr. Tim Vercellotti, Professor of Political Science and Director of the Polling Institute at Western New England University noted that even with national attention focused on the Presidential race, some questions received a lot of attention statewide.

“The marijuana legalization and charter school questions received the most attention by far,” Dr. Vercellotti said. He went onto explain that it isn’t the end for these questions either, which will be debated further.

With marijuana legalization, “The ballot question left open some important issues, such as the optimal level of taxation of revenue from marijuana sales,” Dr. Vercellotti explained.

The professor noted that the question on charter schools will remain a major issue as well. Governor Charlie Baker led the effort to lift the cap on charter schools, while the teachers unions strongly opposed.

Advocates who support alternatives for students in under-performing schools may look to charter schools again, while the teacher’s unions will be on watch for policy proposals like Question 2 that they feel will affect funding for public schools.

Questions 2 and 4 were such hot topics, that Dr. Vercellotti said the Polling Institute began surveying public opinion on them in the spring.

“The results in April showed wide support for marijuana legalization (57% support, 35% opposed), and support for raising the cap on charter schools (51% support, 26% opposed),” Dr. Vercellotti said.

With a high number of undecided voters in this poll though, the narrative had changed a bit when the Polling Institute began surveying public opinion this fall.

The election night results saw the charter schools defeated (32% support, 68% opposed) and the marijuana issue passed by a narrower margin (54% support, 46% opposed). These results reflect the polling that took place at Western New England this fall.

“I suspect that the extensive television advertising over the summer, especially during high-profile events like the Summer Olympics, may have caused opinion to shift,” said Dr. Vercellotti. He added that resources were poured into canvassing, phone banks and direct mail to push the initiatives.

Polling has taken criticism in the days following the election, especially ones focused on the Presidential election. National polls had Hillary Clinton leading Donald Trump, which is why Trump’s victory came as a surprise to many. However, the Polling Institute was accurate both in its projections of the ballot questions, and in the statewide support for Clinton.

While the Commonwealth’s support of Clinton didn’t tip the scale in her favor on election night, the views of Massachusetts voters may have another impact going forward. The ballot questions that were passed may one day end up on the ballot in the other states, or even as a federal law.

“These initiatives start with friendly territory like Massachusetts because they know they can get the signatures on their petition and have their question put on the state ballot,” Professor Fairman explained.

From here, the questions may then go to other states with similar views, until it grabs the attention of the nation. This is the strategy being played out with the marijuana question in particular. Massachusetts now joins seven other states who legalized marijuana in recreational form.

With the election now officially in the past, voters can look forward to these issues of public policy and others being discussed over the next few years, as Massachusetts and the nations prepare for 2020.

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