In addition to the big question on the 2020 ballot, voters in Massachusetts may be asked to decide some crucial public policy questions come Election Day. Petition campaigns are gearing up for ballot questions on topics as diverse as letting prisoners vote, keeping Massachusetts a sanctuary state and protecting whales.
WGBH State House Reporter Mike Deehan has been following these petitions. He spoke with WGBH Radio’s Arun Rath about them. This transcript has been edited for clarity.
Arun Rath: So 16 petitions were submitted to the office of Massachusetts Attorney General Maura Healey yesterday. We won't be able to get through all of them. Let's start with which items you think could have the biggest impact.
Mike Deehan: One thing that's going to get a lot of attention, I think, is selling beer and wine in food stores. Now this is something that came up in 2006, if you remember, and it was defeated in a similar ballot question, 53 percent to 41 percent, but it's back. Basically, grocers and convenience stores want the ability to sell beer and wine, like they can in most other states. This would basically allow cities and towns to give out licenses to your 7-Eleven. Convenience stores obviously want this, grocery stores obviously want this, but there is a strong lobby of opposition from the liquor stores, which are established and regulated and long-standing in Massachusetts.
Arun: Now as you mentioned, the fight over alcohol sales feels like it’s been going on forever. Are there other perennial issues that are coming back that voters might be asked to weigh in on?
Deehan: Yeah, there are a number in this group of 16. Pro-life groups are putting forward a question to end government-funded abortion treatments. This is something that they've been putting up every two-year cycle.
There's another chapter in the right to repair fight. This is another ballot question that was thought to have been decided a few years ago, over the access to schematics and data about ever more computerized automobiles, and if third-party mechanics and third-party part sellers could have access to these things. This new question will be about the wireless data that gets transmitted from your car back to the manufacturer about where you are, how you're driving, you know, what your brake pads are like, all that sensor data.
Read more: Mechanics Lobby for Right to Repair
Rath: So these are all questions that people might have some degree of familiarity with already. Anything that's new out there this year?
Deehan: Yeah, there are some topical issues that have kind of come up, things like stopping Massachusetts from being a sanctuary state. This would put into law that local law enforcement do have the authority to work with ICE and with federal immigration officials.
Rath: Now there are some potential ballot questions that could change the state's political system in different ways. What changes are being proposed?
Deehan: There's a lot. There's a handful of electoral-based questions here, probably foremost among them is ranked-choice voting. That's a system like they have in Maine, where instead of picking one person or not picking the other, you would rank your choices. And there's kind of a complicated math in there, where if someone gets the majority of the votes, they move forward. If they don't, they are eliminated. If they come in last, then those votes get transferred to your second choice. So you are really ranking who you prefer out of a large group of candidates. There are other questions that could end up on the ballot, like limiting corporate donations. There are some very stringent limits proposed to out-of-state donations to political candidates and committees. And there is actually one that probably will stir quite a bit of controversy, which is restoring the vote to currently imprisoned felons.
Rath: Now I want to be clear on your wording on that. You said currently imprisoned felons. This is not just giving voting rights to people who are convicted?
Deehan: Correct. So Massachusetts is not like a lot of states, where felons, when they are convicted, lose the franchise. Massachusetts gives them back the right to vote when they're released. This would allow people currently in jail to cast ballots. And so it could have some interesting technical issues here because the petition, all it does, is remove the part of the law that says that felons can't vote while in prison. So what would this mean? Where would they vote? Is their residence in Norfolk, Walpole, Concord — the places where the large prisons are? Is it in their residence from where they came from? It could really change a lot of things. However, Massachusetts does have a relatively small prison population compared to other states.
Rath: So these are all potential ballot questions. What do they have to go through from here to actually get printed on the ballot in 2020?
Deehan: The process is lengthy. So right now, they are submitted to the attorney general's office. Attorney General Healey will vet them and approve the legal language, and then the campaigns have to get a first round of 80,000 signatures submitted by the end of this year. Then you go through a whole round of potential court objections from people who don't like the wording or don't like the people behind it.
And then after that round, you get another round of 13,000 signatures that are due in July and that will really cull what these campaigns have and what we could see heading up into Election Day 2020. And that's when we’ll get our question one, question two, question five — maybe question 16, if all 16 of them go forward.