Governor Charlie Baker on Tuesday raised the prospect of scheduling a statewide referendum on Boston’s Olympics proposal in early 2016, rather than during the November presidential election, a calendar shift that could dramatically reshape the politics of the vote by targeting a smaller electorate.
Plucking the question out of the maelstrom of a presidential campaign could prevent the already emotional issue from exploding into a national debate in the general election. But an earlier vote would also shorten the window for pro-Olympics forces to sway voters on an issue that has repeatedly tested as unpopular in public opinion polls.
Speaking to financial supporters during a private fund-raiser at a downtown Boston law firm, Baker speculated that the Olympics referendum could be timed to coincide with some municipal elections.
The governor, who has not taken a formal position on whether Boston should host the 2024 Summer Games, later told the Globe that he does not have a preference for the date of the vote.
“I don’t have an opinion on that one way or the other,” Baker said during a State House interview. “I was speaking more to some of the stuff I’ve heard people say as potential issues that might need to be dealt with at some point. That’s something, for example, the USOC might raise.”
“This is something that may or may not ever be an issue,” he added, an apparent reference to the United States Olympic Committee’s pending decision on whether or not to submit Boston’s application to the International Olympic Committee this fall.
On Tuesday, the USOC praised the revised plan released this week, but said poll numbers must improve soon.
One of the people who attended Tuesday’s fund-raiser for the governor said Baker mentioned that the referendum could “be moved up.”
The governor reiterated that “there needs to be a referendum showing support,” according to the attendee who spoke to the Globe on the condition of anonymity.
Boston 2024, the local organizing group behind the bid, has said it supports a referendum, but has yet to detail its intentions. Organizers on Tuesday signaled they were anticipating a vote timed to next year’s general election.
Boston 2024 executive vice president Erin Murphy Rafferty said in a statement late Tuesday the group was operating “with the understanding that the question will be put before the voters in November of 2016.”
Opponents of the Olympic plan are pushing a referendum that would bar the use of public funds for the Games, with the caveat that associated transportation projects could receive taxpayer money. The Boston 2024 proposal relies in part on public funds.
Boston 2024 unveiled its revised proposal on Monday, after vetting it with top USOC officials last week.
The message from the national group: demonstrate a noticeably positive trend in public opinion before September, when the USOC is due to decide on whether to pass along Boston’s application to the international committee.
Pushing the vote earlier in the year could significantly change the composition of the electorate; the November 2016 election is expected to draw the higher voter turnout typical for presidential elections.
The state’s presidential primary is scheduled for March 1. State officials are often reluctant to schedule additional election dates due to costs.
In the last open race for president in 2008, turnout was 72 percent higher in the general election than the primaries. That November, 3.1 million people cast ballots in Massachusetts. The primary election, which was held in February, drew 1.8 million voters.
Cities and towns establish their own local election dates. Swampscott, for instance, where Baker lives and served as a selectman, holds its elections on the fourth Saturday of April.
Placing the question on the ballot sooner than November would likely require a special act of the Legislature, where reaction to the Olympics has been cool.
The issue is further complicated in the Boston City Council, where one councilor is pushing for a separate vote in the city on the Olympics this November.
The proposal would add four questions about hosting the Games to the ballot for the City Council election on Nov. 3. The questions must be passed by a majority vote in the council and approved by Mayor Martin J. Walsh.
On Monday, Boston 2024 officials indicated they were not yet working in earnest on the referendum.
Chief executive Richard Davey said the group is looking at the best way to guarantee a public vote on the Olympics, whether it be through former gubernatorial candidate Evan Falchuk’s ballot question or through a question that would be placed on the ballot by the Legislature.
“The challenge is: Have we done anything? And the answer is no, because we would really have to set up a political campaign apparatus, which we have not done,” Davey said during a meeting with the Globe editorial board.
“So we’ve been very careful to ensure we are following [campaign finance] rules in that regard,” he added.
“Basically, we’re trying to stay out of politics,” said Boston 2024 chairman Steve Pagliuca, who placed fourth in the Democratic US Senate primary in 2009. “We just want something that’s fair out there.”
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