Big Business Is Spending Like Crazy on the Ballot Questions. Does It Matter?

Voters will head to the polls to determine the fate of casinos in Massachusetts this fall.
Voters will head to the polls to determine the fate of casinos in Massachusetts this fall. –Jessica Rinaldi/The Boston Globe

It’s a $1.79 million to $458,000 advantage.

Those are the total funds raised in the most-watched ballot question on Massachusetts ballots this fall. The side with the big lead is the one representing and comprising the gambling industry, which is urging voters to say ‘no’ on Question 3, keeping casino laws on the books and their plans intact. Almost all of the money raised against the Question 3 initiative comes from two donors—Penn National Gaming and MGM Resorts, who respectively plan to open a slots parlor in Plainville and a casino in Springfield.

While there are laws regulating fundraising for political candidates (eroding though they may be), companies can make such massive donations to influence ballot questions—the closest thing to direct democracy we’ve got at the statewide level. The precedent was set by a few Supreme Court cases in the past, including a local one in 1978 (First National Bank of Boston v. Bellotti) that struck down a state law limiting which corporations could donate to these committees.

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This year’s ballot questions carry a number of business implications. As such, businesses have jumped into the fray, wallet first.

Up the ballot from the casino question, there’s an even more stark financial disadvantage for a group looking to make a change that would affect a big business. Question 2 would apply the 5-cent bottle deposit fee to water bottles and the like, which is already applied to beer and soda bottles and cans. The scoreboard for the supermarket and beverage industries, urging a ‘no,’ has outraised environmental activists and their supporters, $7.85 million to $525,000. Among the big donors: Stop & Shop at $300,000, Roche Bros. at close to $80,000, and the American Beverage Association at—yikes—more than $7.2 million.

Then there’s Question 1, where a ‘yes’ vote would keep the Massachusetts gas tax from raising every year with inflation, thus putting a dent in the state’s budget for infrastructure repair. Businesses that stand to win the contracts to do those repairs have supported a ‘no’ vote on that one, too, and hold a fundraising advantage over those who would sooner see the tax relaxed, $950,000 to $67,700.

For those three questions, the pattern is clear: Industries are rallying with big donations to gain a foothold over less monied activists. Question 4, which would allow employees to earn up to five days of paid sick time each year, would most directly impact the broadest array of businesses. Interestingly, the committee against the question’s passage had raised nothing as of the latest filings. Meanwhile, worker advocates in support of its passage have raised close to half a million dollars.

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Based on recent polling, some of the sides with more cash are starting with an advantage among voters, too. The gambling question has consistently shown an electorate that would prefer to keep casinos around. A WBUR poll found voters aren’t enamored with limiting the gas tax, either. And they are in support of the sick time initiative, according to another WBUR tally.

But not every group with the cash advantage also has the polling edge. There’s not a lot of evidence on where voters stand about the bottle bill, but Boston Magazine’s David Bernstein cites a poll from last month showing a sizable advantage for the pro-Question 2 group.

All of this begs the question: Does fundraising matter for ballot initiatives?

This year’s initiatives don’t lend themselves to that query just yet, because the effects of the fundraising are still to be felt. While we’re starting to see signsofadvertising urging ‘no’ on the bottle and casino questions, we still have more than a full month before the election…which, as we know, means we are yet to be truly inundated with messaging. It may not be until Election Day that the massive fundraising advantages on any of the questions would shine through.

In recent elections, the higher spending ballot committees have prevailed, winning all eight ballot initiatives in 2012, 2010, and 2008. (The ‘right to repair’ initiative of 2012 was not included in this analysis, because the legislature sorted that out before election day, making the vote itself moot.)

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Going back a few more elections to 1998, though, there is some precedent for the lower spender coming out on top. In 2006, all three questions saw the side with less financial support win out. That included the ballot question that generated the most spending in state history, which would have allowed for wine sales at grocery stores. There, the grocery industry spent more than $7.4 million to stock its shelves with reds and whites. Its loss came to an opposition that included plenty of liquor store operators that wanted all the wine for themselves. Though that side lost the fundraising battle, it spent a solid $5.3 million in winning the ballot battle.

In the last eight statewide elections, the bigger spender has won 16 of 23 ballot questions. (There have been a couple of questions with no political finance activity that are not included in that figure. That’s also not including right to repair.)

However, it is worth pointing out that only once in that frame has the lower spender won while in support of an initiative to change the law. On the casino, gas tax, and bottle questions this time around, the group getting beat in fundraising is looking to make a change in law, rather than to keep the status quo.

Maurice Cunningham, a professor of politics at UMass Boston who has studied referendum spending, says there have been some studies that suggest opposition spending to be more potent than spending in support of an initiative.

Cunningham also said that it generally takes about a 2-to-1 spending advantage in a ballot campaign to create a statistically significant effect. For all the money in the wine-at-the-grocery-store fight in 2006, the grocery industry didn’t have that kind of a dollar lead—and it lost. There have been a few Massachusetts winners who overcame a 2-to-1 finance disadvantage, however.

But when that spending advantage does kick in, Cunningham said, it can play a role quickly.

He pointed to the 2012 initiative on physician-assisted suicide (known as the ‘death with diginity’ campaign). In mid-September, voters showed a 64 percent to 27 percent advantage to legalize the practice in one poll. But the heavily-funded opposition, which had more than a 5-to-1 advantage in spending, ultimately won out. Cunningham said the bottle bill, currently showing voters to support it despite a more than 14-to-1 fundraising disadvantage, as one that could be susceptible to the same fate. (Bernstein, at Boston Magazine, made the same parallel.)

Long story short, there is a recent history in Massachusetts of the money edge not being the be-all, end-all for ballot questions. Since the other committees with the financial advantage already have the lead in the polls, the bottle bill may make for the best way of gauging the extent to which money matters for the 2014 batch.

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