Our Opinion: Ballot questions begin long journey

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Several initiatives have met their first deadline on the road to making the Massachusetts ballot in 2020, and while none may change the landscape as dramatically as did the 2016 vote legalizing marijuana, they would all have an impact to one degree or another.

A dozen proposed referendum questions and constitutional amendments were filed with the office of the attorney general by 5 p.m. Wednesday. Proponents must now prepare for a variety of hurdles, including the collection of signatures from registered voters and the passing of legal muster by the attorney general.

One initiative would institute ranked-choice voting in Massachusetts for the 2022 election. Under this system, voters rank the candidates on a ballot and if no candidate achieves a majority, the last place candidate is eliminated and the votes reallocated until someone achieves a majority. Advocates led by Voter Choice Massachusetts maintain that this process assures a majority winner and makes it less likely that a fringe candidate would triumph. Opponents claim it is confusing and argue that the deck should not be stacked against third party candidates. Maine, which in 2018 elected the first congressman in the nation chosen by ranked-choice voting, serves as a test case for Massachusetts residents to consider.

A 2000 ballot referendum question took away the rights of felons in Massachusetts to vote as long as they were in prison. It did not apply to those convicted of a felony who were not jailed. Advocates of an initiative restoring voting rights to imprisoned felons say that they should not be disenfranchised of their constitutional rights. This follows in the footsteps of a Florida initiative that restored felon voting rights in 2018. However, the Florida legislature is now pursuing ways to block enactment of the referendum, and the same could happen in Massachusetts.

State Sen. Adam Hinds, a Pittsfield Democrat, proposed that those voting rights for felons be restored in an April appearance before a legislative committee. He said that mistreatment by people of color in the legal system and voter disenfranchisement in general that have come to light in recent years requires this change. The state senator did indicate a willingness to compromise in some cases, such as murder. This effort faces many obstacles as a referendum question and as a legislative initiative, but the latter route is preferable with this complex an issue.

The always controversial abortion issue appears with a referendum that would overturn a 1981 decision by the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court finding that the state constitution requires the state to pay for abortions for poor women. Massachusetts is one of 17 states that uses public funds to finance abortions. The money is targeted for poor women, but the state Executive Office of Health and Human Services cannot provide an exact figure for how much state tax money is spent on abortions. Even if the spending of public money on abortions is not required, as ballot question proponents assert, it doesn't mean that a case cannot be made for its fairness and value. As this is a constitutional amendment, the more complex process means that the abortion question could not be on the ballot before 2022.

The Right to Repair Coalition, which won a ballot referendum in 2012 assuring that repair shops and their customers would have access to manufacturers' proprietary information, are back again. They argue that the wireless connections that were rare in 2012 are common today in new cars and repair shops must have access to the information on how they work, requiring another initiative. As car technology keeps advancing, look to the Right to Repair folks to be regular ballot referendum customers.

As usual with ballot questions, The Eagle urges that as many of these issues as possible be resolved in advance by the Legislature, which was the case with a couple of ballot initiatives in 2018. The legislative process is a far better way to craft complex laws than the referendum process.

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