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Jerry Williams' uneven impact on the defeat of the seat-belt law
By A.A. Michelson, 12/13/1986
ast month's election returns, which became official last week, clearly show that the vote on Question 5 -- whether the seat-belt law should be retained -- was a smashing testimonial to the months and months of assaults on it by Jerry Williams, the WRKO talk-show host.
The returns show that the farther away voters were from the signal of the Boston radio station the more they were inclined to retain the law. But the area that is not attuned to Jerry Williams and WRKO is the least populated. In the end, Williams prevailed when 50.3 percent of the voters chose to repeal the law; the vote was 892,580 to 769,806. Almost 115,000 people who went to the polls did not bother to vote on the question.
Seven of the state's 14 counties voted to retain the law, but they are the least populous counties -- Barnstable, Berkshire, Dukes, Franklin, Hampden, Hampshire and Nantucket.
Williams had several things going for him. One is that the turnout Nov. 4 was the lowest in the state's election history. Only 59.12 percent of the 3,055,729 registered voters bothered to go to the polls. Indeed, had the turnout been even as large as the previous low election year -- in 1974, when only 64.76 percent of the registered voters cast ballots -- there would have been an additional 170,000 people participating.
The organization that led the repeal fight brags that it spent only a small fraction of the amount spent by seat-belt supporters. But had that same organization paid for the time that Williams used every day for months to attack the law, the cost might well have dwarfed the sums that proponents spent.
Discussion of Question 5 on the Williams show preempted virtually all other subjects. And occasionally, when there was a caller who supported the seat- belt law, he or she was harassed by Williams, who was constantly screaming about the state violating people's "constitutional" right to drive a motor vehicle on the highways. Inded, the privilege of driving is one of the most regulated of the laws of any state, a point the US Supreme Court has made in upholding certain state practices of stopping automobiles to search for violations.
This kind of total advocacy on one side of a political issue raises questions that should be of concern to the Federal Communications Commission. A radio or TV station that editorializes on an issue is supposed to give equal time to the other side. But Jerry Williams' advocacy of seat-belt repeal and the smothering of those who opposed him on his show do not jibe with the FCC's equal-time policy.
The official returns also showed that there was more public interest in the seat-belt question than any other -- again perhaps an example of Williams' influence.
Normally, in state elections, as a voter goes down a ballot that is loaded with unopposed incumbents, the number of blanks increases, depending on the popularity of the candidates or the issue.
Question 5 did get a lot of blanks, but there were fewer blanks for it than for any of the other questions, including two in which the Roman Catholic Church played a prominent role. One would have banned any state funding of abortions. The other would have allowed the expenditure of public money to support private or parochial schools.
The returns show generally that even with a small turnout, an unusually large percentage of those who did vote cast blanks. Even in the first contest on the ballot, which was for governor, there were 93,138 who didn't cast a ballot. That represents 40,000 more blanks than in 1982, when Michael Dukakis won back the office.