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You don’t have the final say on ballot questions. Your state lawmaker does

A summary of Question 1.Bill Sikes/Associated Press/file

The long and expensive campaigns surrounding the state’s two ballot questions will grind to an end Tuesday, when the last of Massachusetts' voters get their say.

After that, state lawmakers could get theirs.

Ballot measures, including those this year to expand the state’s “Right to Repair” law and implement ranked-choice voting, are designed to allow advocates to bypass Beacon Hill and ask voters directly to put laws on the books.

But the state constitution doesn’t bar the Legislature from amending what voters approve, a path it has repeatedly taken this century to reshape or delay what lawmakers viewed as problematic parts of the initiatives. It’s a possibility that legislative leaders are not discounting with two administratively complex proposals on Tuesday’s ballot.


“We’re not going to mess with the intent. I can say that with confidence,” said state Representative Patricia A. Haddad of Somerset, the House’s third-ranking Democrat. “But of course you fix things that can’t happen within the time frame [proposed].”

To what degree either ballot measure could change is unclear. Some lawmakers contacted by the Globe were hesitant to hypothesize, fearful, they said, of influencing voters' decisions. Others said they hadn’t delved deep enough into either proposal — even if they’re personally voting for them — noting that legislators historically don’t begin such discussions until after Election Day.

(Legislative leaders did, however, talk openly about amending a 2016 marijuana legalization measure before it passed.)

Ballot questions undergo a legal review by the state attorney general. But Tackey Chan, a Quincy Democrat and House chairman of the consumer protection committee, which considered bills similar to the Right to Repair ballot question, said that’s no panacea.

“Just because you write a bill and it’s approved by the AG, it doesn’t mean all the right parts are in,” said Chan, who declined to say how he’s voting on either ballot question.


House Speaker Robert A. DeLeo, a Democrat from Winthrop, declined comment through his office, citing the pending vote. Aides to Senate President Karen E. Spilka, a Democrat from Ashland, said she was unavailable for an interview and did not respond to subsequent requests for comment.

Still, other legislative leaders said parts of both initiatives could be ripe for changes, either because of concerns about the mandated time frame for implementation or constitutional questions that also could be decided in the courts.

In Question 1, voters are being asked to expand on a measure they first approved in 2012 that allowed independent repair shops to plug into a car to help diagnose problems, effectively giving owners more choices of where to get their cars fixed.

This time, a coalition of aftermarket businesses and independent shops are asking voters to allow access to the mechanical data transmitted wirelessly from a car, known as telematics, opening up what’s become a complicated, and often sensationalized, debate over data privacy and security.

Lawmakers tinkered with the original 2012 initiative, passing a new version in 2013 that reconciled it with a compromise law they had passed months before Election Day.

Analysts and lawmakers alike warn this year’s proposal has its own complicated elements. The bill sets a deadline of requiring automakers to design and implement a system for sharing the data beginning with model year 2022 cars. It also calls for the development of an application that would make it possible for car owners to both see their own data and share that with an independent mechanic.


It does not, however, specify who will build the app or how it should operate, and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration has said it is “effectively impossible” for automakers to design, test, and implement a secure approach within the proposal’s time frame.

“[Given] the time frame and certain obvious ambiguities that are in the language, it could be a legislative rerun that happened years ago where the Legislature is compelled to deal with language, should it pass,” said state Representative William M. Straus, a Mattapoisett Democrat who is the House’s longtime transportation chairman.

Tommy Hickey, director of the Massachusetts Right to Repair Coalition, said he believes the measure could be “easily” implemented in time with existing technology. The question’s supporters, he said, “hope our elected officials heed the will of the voters.”

Question 2 would establish ranked-choice voting, under which voters rank their preferred choices for an array of elected seats. Should no candidate earn more than 50 percent of the vote, the one with the least support is stripped away and his or her voters are reallocated until another candidate reaches a majority.

Supporters say the proposed system — which would be used for statewide, congressional, and legislative races starting in 2022, but not presidential elections or municipal elections — would help eliminate “spoiler” candidates and vote-splitting, and provide a disincentive for negative campaigning.


“The question for voters is a broader policy one: Is this the method of voting you want?” said state Senator Rebecca L. Rausch, a Democrat from Needham who endorsed the question.

“And if there are details that need to be revised to be consistent with voters' desire, then the Legislature can do it,” she said. “But I don’t think the question is, ‘What might get tweaked if the ballot question passes?’ Rather, if it passes, will we clear the red tape?”

Others suggested there’s potential for other, targeted changes should Massachusetts vote to join Maine, the only state currently using ranked-choice elections.

“Would it be easier to limit it to your top three choices? Or your top five? How are those in Western Massachusetts going to deal with tabulation?” asked state Senator Barry R. Finegold, the cochairman of the elections law committee and an Andover Democrat. (The ballot proposal requires that state officials create a “central tabulation facility” for counting in subsequent rounds.)

There’s also questions of the system’s constitutionality. The Massachusetts Constitution says for state offices, the person “having the highest number of votes” is the winner — wording that could create a potential conflict with a ranked-choice system, where the person with the most initial number-one votes may not necessarily win.

Haddad, the House’s speaker pro tempore, said it’s possible the Legislature could ask the Supreme Judicial Court for an advisory opinion, as a Tufts University think tank has suggested.


The courts have overturned approved ballot questions before, including a 1994 measure that effectively set new term limits on elected officials but was struck down by the SJC less than three years later.

But the Legislature has its own recent history of changing ballot measures, sometimes in substantial ways.

That includes the 2016 measure legalizing marijuana sales, which lawmakers first delayed and then reworked months later, raising the total tax on retail purchases and restructuring how the state regulated the newly legal industry, among other changes.

In 1998, voters had approved a complicated “clean elections” law that was designed to limit the influence of money by establishing public funding and voluntary spending limits for a variety of public offices. But lawmakers refused to fund it, and what remains now is a voluntary $1 income tax return checkoff that creates the small pool of public funds for statewide candidates.

Then there is the infamous 2000 income tax rollback measure. After voters decided that year to knock the state’s income tax rate down from 5.85 percent to 5 percent by tax year 2003, lawmakers created a complicated process that substantially slowed the drop, and it ultimately took 20 years to fulfill the measure’s promise.

Also in 2000, voters approved a measure allowing residents to claim charitable deductions on their state tax returns. But the Legislature suspended that, too, after only one year, and tied its return to the income tax rate reaching 5 percent.

It’s now slated to go in effect in January, but even that is not ensured. Governor Charlie Baker’s new budget plan proposes suspending it again, this time for another year.

Matt Stout can be reached at Follow him @mattpstout.