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Non-binding ballot questions: Because three real questions weren't enough?

Posted by Dante Ramos  November 6, 2012 06:19 PM

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The long lines at the polls in Massachusetts today weren't just because of a highly competitive Senate race, or because voters struggled to understand three somewhat complicated statewide ballot questions. Voters in many legislative districts across the state also confronted one or more of three non-binding ballot questions -- about the federal budget, about a possible constitutional amendment overturning the Supreme Court's Citizens United decision, and about whether marijuana should be regulated like alcohol.

But are these ballot measures -- which, as the name "non-binding" suggests, have zero legal effect if they pass -- even worth holding up the line?

Direct democracy has its benefits. One can quibble with this year's statewide ballot questions, but the mere prospect of the first one, which would guarantee independent mechanics access to information needed to fix cars, pushed the Legislature to reach a compromise on the issue; the other two questions have stimulated an excellent public discussion on two issues -- medical marijuana and physician-assisted suicide -- that many legislators see no advantage in touching. I've never read a better exchange of letters than the deeply felt ones our readers sent us on either side of the "death with dignity" ballot questions.

These messages, however, contemplate actual changes to the law, and need a minimum of 68,911 signatures from voters to get on the ballot. But it's easy to get a non-binding question -- also known as a "public policy question" -- on the ballot in a given state Senate district, because you need just 1,200 signatures; for a House district, it's just 200. So some odd questions show up on ballots. In 2010, voters in a Pittsfield House district were asked whether the state's definition of nudity should be amended to exclude the female breast. The same year, voters in Boston and Cambridge district were asked whether they wanted to "delegate their powers concerning international affairs to a democratically elected legislative body of a global federal union of democratic nations." (Both measures failed.)

At least some serious interest groups view these questions favorably. Pam Wilmot, who heads the state's chapter of Common Cause and his been active on the non-binding ballot question on overturning Citizens United, says it's a way of educating the public and testing the appeal of certain ideas. She says public policy questions have been used as previews as initiatives on election and redistricting reforms. "We think the discussion," she said of the Citizens United question, "can only have a positive effect."

Let's hope she's right. But maybe there's just something wrong with these non-binding questions. Because they don't appear everywhere, their mandate is difficult to interpret even if they pass resoundingly. And since many or most voters hear of these questions for the first time upon turning up at the polls, their responses may reflect a minimally informed reaction to an arcanely phrased question that they struggle to understand -- even as the lines at the polls get longer.

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ABOUT THE ANGLE Online commentary and news analysis from the Boston Globe. The Angle is produced by Rob Anderson and Alan Wirzbicki. You can follow Rob on Twitter at @rcand.

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