The wrangling over Ballot Question 1, commonly known as the “right-to-repair” measure, illustrates both everything that’s good and everything that’s alarming about the voter-initiative process in Massachusetts. Supporters of the measure have a legitimate concern about guaranteeing consumers’ access to the information needed to fix their cars. They used the threat of a ballot initiative to force state lawmakers to act on the issue. Having largely prevailed, though, they have no good reason to urge approval now of a ballot question on a matter best left to lawmakers.
Voters should just skip the question. To do so is to endorse the existing legislation, which came too late in the session to take the question off the Nov. 6 ballot.
To protect the basic principles of consumer protection and a competitive marketplace, the Commonwealth could use a legal standard specifying that people who shell out many thousands of dollars for a vehicle should have access to the information needed to fix it. For years, some independent mechanics have complained that, by closely guarding computer codes and other crucial information, automakers have essentially forced motorists to pay for expensive repairs at dealerships.
For their part, carmakers and dealers long insisted that, in practice, relevant repair information is already available. Under the threat of the ballot measure, the auto industry agreed to compromise legislation that calls upon automakers to provide repair data through a standardized system but gives them until 2018 to comply. Failure to comply would be considered an unfair and deceptive trade practice. It’s a fair deal that both honors the art of compromise and gives the companies involved some time to adjust.
The ballot question would require the change sooner, by 2015, and would add a stiff extra penalty; carmakers that don’t comply would be forbidden to sell cars in Massachusetts. When the legislative compromise passed, right-to-repair proponents agreed that the ballot question should be moot — but many suddenly reversed course in recent weeks and are now urging passage.
Ballot measures don’t take effect unless at least 30 percent of voters cast votes on them; skipping the question, therefore, is a way of letting the compromise stand, without opposing the underlying consumer principle.