Guide to Massachusetts Ballot Questions
As part of our mission to provide impartial analysis of live legislative issues and ballot questions, the Center for State Policy Analysis has assembled a guide to the 2020 Massachusetts ballot questions. We do not endorse a particular side — on any ballot initiative — but we aim to gives voters the information they need to make sound decisions on complex issues.
Question 1: Expanding the Right to Repair Law
Question 1, dubbed “Right to Repair,” would make it easier for independent auto mechanics to access the wireless data systems that are increasingly common in modern cars.
These wireless systems, called vehicle telematics, collect data about your driving habits and share it with the automobile’s manufacturer. This data could include driving speeds, brake usage, turning behavior, potholes encountered — even GPS-tracked details about where you travel.
If the ballot question passes, automakers would be required to create a platform for accessing telematics information. Car owners would then be able share their repair-relevant telematics data with independent repair facilities via a smartphone app.
Before deciding how to vote on Question 1, Massachusetts residents should consider the following issues:
- While some telematics data is quite sensitive, like your GPS history, this right-to-repair initiative focuses on data that is “related to the diagnosis, repair or maintenance of the vehicle.”
- So long as GPS and other privacy-related information is excluded — as it seems to be — concerns about data misuse are greatly diminished. Some risks remain, however, including potential exploitation of the system for remotely updating your car.
- Ensuring that independent repair shops have broad access to repair-relevant data can promote competition. However, Question 1 is not likely to produce large, near-term benefits for mechanics, as telematics systems are relatively new and don’t yet contain large amounts of re- pair-relevant data.
- The deadlines in this ballot initiative are extremely tight, requiring automakers to design and implement a system for sharing telematics data beginning with model year 2022. More time may be required to meet usability and security needs.
- There are many unanswered questions around this ballot initiative, including: How will the cellphone app operate? And what protections are needed to safeguard data collected by independent shops and auto- makers?
- If the ballot question passes, the Massachusetts legislature could smooth implementation by settling open questions and establishing an oversight body to track progress.
In the complete guide, we answer key questions about this right-to-repair ballot initiative, including how it works, its likely impact, and potential risks that voters should consider. We also discuss steps the legislature could take, regardless of whether Question 1 passes.
Question 2: Ranked-Choice Voting
Question 2 on the November ballot asks Massachusetts voters to consider a major change in the way they vote, with far-reaching implications for who gets elected, who chooses to run, and how candidates campaign.
It’s an approach called ranked-choice voting, and the key difference is right there in the name: ranking. Unlike the state’s current system, where voters choose a single candidate in each race, ranked choice lets voters rank the candidates — as many as they like — from their top choice to their least favorite option.
If the ballot initiative passes, Massachusetts voters will use this ranking process in a significant number of state and federal elections — though not for the presidential election.1
Allowing voters to rank candidates would also change how votes get counted. As an example, if your top choice turns out to be uncompetitive, your vote will actually transfer to your second choice — as part of a multi-round counting process that helps weed out “spoiler” candidates and ensures winners have a broader base of support.
Switching to ranked-choice voting would bring potential risks and challenges, though the approach is rare enough that researchers are still trying to determine exactly how it affects turnout, partisanship, campaign spending, and more.2
Before deciding how to vote on Question 2, Massachusetts residents should consider the following issues:
- Our current voting system has some genuine deficiencies, which ranked choice can address. For instance, in large fields, the winning candidate sometimes ends up with a surprisingly small share of the votes. (In one 2020 Massachusetts congressional primary, the winner had just 22.4 percent of the vote.) This doesn’t happen under ranked choice, where counting continues until someone gathers majority support.
- Also, the current system sometimes discourages voters from supporting their real favorites. If your preferred candidate has low polling numbers, you may feel pressure to back another candidate with a better chance of prevailing. But under ranked choice you can vote your true preference, confident that if your first choice proves unpopular, your vote will get transferred to a more viable candidate in your rankings.
- There may be a constitutional problem with this ballot question that could preclude using ranked choice in general elections for state officers (though primaries and federal elections would be unaffected). The Massachusetts constitution says that in these races “the person having the highest number of votes shall be deemed and declared to be elected.” This may conflict with ranked choice, where the person with the most initial votes doesn’t necessarily win. And this uncertainty could lead to disruptive legal challenges, putting future elections in the hands of the courts.
- The transition to ranked choice may also be rocky. Moving to a new voting system would require not just a reorganization of election logistics but also a meaningful change in the way voters think about candidates and prepare for election day.
- Results would likely take more time, as the counting process is more involved for ranked-choice elections. In some cases, ballots from across the state will have to be transported to a central location to be tabulated. And while electronic records could speed this process, the secretary of state’s office notes that not all precincts have the capacity to generate electronic records, not to mention concerns about the secure transmission of electronic data.
- Many claims about the costs and benefits of ranked choice are based on limited evidence. This includes arguments about turnout, new types of candidates, campaign spending, and the impact on minority groups.
In the complete guide, we consider these points in greater detail. First, we describe how ranked-choice voting would work in Massachusetts. Then, we discuss the potential constitutional challenge and assess research on voter and candidate behavior.