Extra questions surprise JP voters

David Taber

Voters in the 11th and 15th Suffolk state representative districts were surprised by a few extra questions on their ballots when they cast them Nov. 2.

Voters in the 11th and 15th were asked about their support for single-payer healthcare, and voters in the 15th were asked how they feel about legalizing medical marijuana and where they stand on the issue of political equality for non-Jewish Israeli Palestinians.

Of those three non-binding “public policy questions,” the question regarding single-payer healthcare was the most widely publicized in the community—and the only one reported in the Gazette—prior to Nov. 2.

One local voter, Gordon Dale, told the Gazette he would have appreciated some advance notice about the non-binding questions, particularly the question about support for Israeli Palestinians, which read: “Shall the state representative from this district be instructed to vote in favor of a non-binding resolution calling on the federal government to support the right of all people, including non-Jewish Palestinian citizens of Israel, to live free from laws that give more rights to people of one religion than another?”

Dale critiques that question in a letter to the editor published in this issue of the Gazette, on the grounds that it does not take issues specific to Israeli civil society into account. In a phone interview he told the Gazette he would have voiced his opinion prior to Election Day, if he had known voters were going to be asked to comment on Israeli politics.

Brian McNiff, spokesperson for the Secretary of the Commonwealth Bill Galvin’s Office—which oversees state elections—said that while the state is required by the constitution to inform voters about statewide ballot initiatives, letting voters know about local public policy questions is left up to the petitioner.

Contacted by the Gazette, Kathy Felgran, a Watertown resident and spokesperson for Massachusetts Residents for International Human Rights (MRIHR)—the petitioner for the Israeli Palestinian question—said the group had distributed thousands of flyers and had done at least one forum on the question in Jamaica Plain at one of the branch libraries, though she could not say which library.

She said the goal of the question is to raise awareness about the plight of non-Jewish Israeli Palestinians and to “let people know if they are not in agreement with the US’s unquestioning support of Israeli policy, they don’t have to be ashamed.”

Prior to the vote, Dale said, he was only able to find information about the three statewide binding questions on the ballot. “I did research about the ballot questions so I would be in a position to make an informed vote,” he said.

“Had I known about the question, I would have made sure to inform other voters,” he said.

The question about non-Jewish Israeli Palestinians was placed on the ballot in legislative districts in Watertown and Arlington, as well as the JP districts. In the 15th Suffolk it passed with about 66 percent of the vote. Throughout the state, the measure received about 57 percent of the vote, according to a press release from MRIHR.

The other two non-binding ballot initiatives considered by JP voters were both put on the ballot primarily in an effort to influence public policy in the state, proponents of the questions said.

Bill Downing of the Massachusetts Cannabis Reform Coalition (MassCann), and a Reading resident, said that public policy questions about reforming marijuana laws were on ballots in 18 districts throughout the state Nov. 2.

MassCann was not able to publicize the question because, “We are grassroots. We have no money,” Downing said.

He said that the JP measure, which calls on state Rep. Jeffrey Sánchez to support the legalization of marijuana for medical uses, is intended specifically to influence Sánchez, who heads the state legislature’s Joint Committee on Public Health.

“It’s the best damn poll you could ever get,” Downing said of the question, because of the large sample size and because it tracks the opinions of actual voters.

It passed with 66 percent support in JP. Sánchez won reelection, unopposed on the same ballot after beating a pro-medical-marijuana opponent, Jeffrey Herman, in a primary battle in September by a margin of 81 percent to 19 percent. During the primary campaign, Sánchez said he does not oppose medical marijuana, but he is not in favor of state policy that contradicts federal policy on the issue.

“I never thought I would spend so much time on grass,” Sánchez told the Gazette in a recent phone interview, commenting on the ongoing dialogue about the issue.

Downing said MassCann also hopes to use the positive voter response to secure funders for a campaign to get a binding medical marijuana question on the 2012 ballot.

Those efforts included participation by proponents of the question in an Oct. 26 forum hosted by the Wards 11 and 19 Democratic Committees mostly devoted to discussing the binding ballot questions.

Grace Ross, a gubernatorial candidate in 2006 who worked with the group MassCare on the single-payer healthcare question—which passed in 14 state rep. districts where it was put to voters and in JP with over 70 percent of the vote—told the Gazette that the effort on that question was both to influence politicians and to help “keep it in the mind of voters.”

Like the relaxation of drug laws, Ross claimed single-payer healthcare is consistently shown to be broadly popular. “We want to get the legislature to get it that people in the district support [single-payer],” she said.

The statewide advocacy effort for single-payer healthcare is also focused on “reframing” discussion of health care reform around the idea that, as Ross claimed, single-payer would be less expensive for taxpayers than the current system.

MassCare was the only group with a Public Policy question on the ballot to participate in an Oct. 26 forum sponsored by the ward 11 and ward 19 Democratic Committees on ballot initiatives in the state. That forum dealt mostly with the statewide binding initiatives, including proposals to repeal the state alcohol tax, reduce the state sales tax and change state affordable housing rules.

Malia told the Gazette that the other two non-binding questions were mentioned at the forum. “People didn’t know about them, including myself,” she said. “We didn’t really have a chance to have any discussion about them.”

State rules for public policy questions require that they be phrased as non-binding instructions for state legislators on how to vote on particular issues. Both Malia and Sánchez told the Gazette that the referenda would not determine how they might vote if any of those issues come before the state legislature.

“It is not that complicated to get a question on the ballot,” Sánchez said.

Both said they support single-payer health care in principal.

“Single-payer would be ideal, but we do not have the capacity to implement it,” Malia told the Gazette, saying it is likely that the state legislature will be focused in the coming session on containing costs in the state’s current healthcare system.

It takes signatures from 200 registered voters to get a public policy question on the ballot in a state rep. district. It takes 1,200 signatures to get one in a state senatorial district.

Statewide binding questions can only be used to repeal existing state laws. It takes at least 33,297 signatures to use the statewide ballot for a binding referendum.

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