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Ballot questions intended to send leaders a message

Questions on austerity, political ads nonbinding

After months of campaign ads, debates, and political back-and-forth, voters will head to the polls Tuesday to decide whom to send to Washington. But in a pair of little-noticed, nonbinding ballot questions, some Massachusetts voters have the opportunity to tell the newly elected officials what they would like them to do when they get to Capitol Hill.

In much of Greater Boston, voters will consider an antiausterity measure that would call on elected officials to prevent cuts to social insurance programs by instead reducing military spending and raising taxes on the wealthy.

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A second question, on the ballot in about one-third of the state, urges support for a constitutional amendment to overturn the Supreme Court’s decision in the Citizens United case, which struck down campaign finance restrictions on corporations, labor unions, and advocacy groups. The amendment would declare that Congress and the states may place limits on political contributions and that “corporations are not entitled to the constitutional rights of human beings.”

In the landmark 2010 Citizens decision, the high court held that corporations are entitled to many of the same free-speech rights as people. Critics have condemned the ruling, which they say allows a vast influx of money into elections and corrupts the democratic process.

The nonbinding questions are meant as barometers of public opinion, and carry no legal force.

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Each question will appear on the ballot in more than 30 legislative districts, an unusually high number for nonbinding questions. In a grass-roots effort, proponents of each collected signatures district-by-district, so some ballots will include one question but not the other.

While the measures have received little attention, proponents say they are more than symbolic and deserve consideration.

“. . . If every group fights only to protect our own separate programs, we will all lose.”Margaret Arneaud, a state tenant alliance leader

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Tyler Creighton, state field director for Common Cause, which led the campaign for the Citizens United question, said the ballot question is meant to raise awareness about the issue and send a message to elected officials.

“It’s a lot more important than people are giving it credit for,” Creighton said. “It could make a powerful statement.”

At a recent rally for the budget question in Dorchester, supporters struck a similar theme. Daryl Wright, a member of a Dorchester peace group, told the crowd that potential cuts to Social Security, Medicare, and other social programs would hurt the most vulnerable and that ordinary people needed to stand up in opposition.

“That is why we must send Congress a message!” he said. “The best investment we can make is in jobs here at home.”

The ballot question calls on elected officials to support investments in education, housing, transportation, and other public services. On the revenue side, it makes an appeal for higher taxes for households with incomes over $250,000, and eliminating offshore tax havens and other tax breaks for corporations.

Supporters said they want the country to invest more tax revenue in social programs by scaling back military spending, and they say the government has an obligation to help the poor and working class.

At the rally, many said they feared potential budget cuts to reduce the deficit, particularly trimming the spending on housing vouchers, unemployment insurance, and other programs designed to help those in need. Even people with steady jobs sometimes cannot afford to pay their own way, they said.

Phyllis Evans, a community activist who collected signatures to bring the question to ballot, said the recession and slow economic recovery have put many families in desperate straits. With so many people out of work, the government should spend more money on job training and other employment programs, she said.

“The 1 percent have theirs,” she told a crowd of about 100. “We want a little bit, too. We’re just asking for jobs for people. We have to get the message to Congress that we’re suffering.”

A coalition of civic groups and labor organizations backs the question, as well as a number of elected officials.

Speaking at the rally, Michael Capuano, a US representative, said the referendum has worthy aims.

“What this is about is trying to level the playing field a little bit,” he said. “It’s about making America a little fairer.”

Felix Arroyo, a Boston city councilor, called on the wealthy to “pay their fair share” and said income from investments should be taxed at a higher rate.

“I expect Mitt Romney to pay more than 14 percent in taxes,” he said.

Margaret Arneaud, a leader of a state tenant alliance, said a variety of civic groups has united behind the measure, which she said signals its importance.

“We realized if every group fights only to protect our own separate programs, we will all lose,” she said. “Unless we unite and win new revenues by taxing the 1 percent and reducing military spending, there will be unavoidable cuts to Social Security, Medicare, Section 8, and everything else people need.”

On the campaign finance question, a number of other states are considering similar measures, Creighton said. Nine states, including Massachusetts, have passed resolutions denouncing the Supreme Court decision and its impact on campaign regulations.

Creighton said the flood of political spending is forcing politicians to rely on major donors, giving them undue influence.

Peter Schworm can be reached at schworm@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @globepete.
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