With nearly $43 million spent so far, the battle over expanding the state’s “Right to Repair” law has become the most expensive ballot initiative in Massachusetts history, stoking concerns that moneyed interests are overtaking a system designed to give everyday citizens a more direct voice in lawmaking.
That historic level of spending, combined with the expensive effort to bring ranked-choice voting to Massachusetts through Question 2, could push the amount of money being wielded for initiative petitions to unprecedented levels this year.
Maurice T. Cunningham, a University of Massachusetts Boston political science professor who closely studies campaign financing, said his research found that of 20 ballot questions residents voted on between 2008 and 2018, the side that spent the most saw its position prevail 17 times.
“The ideal of the ballot measure being a reflection of the will of the citizens is fading with almost every year as it becomes a battleground for big money interest groups,” Cunningham said.
Spending by the committees for and against Question 1, which has become a focal point in an automobile industry war, will undoubtedly rise. The $42.9 million the opposing sides have reported so far covers through Oct. 20, the most recent deadline, and new disclosures aren’t due until Thursday.
The bulging price tag, fueled by massive contributions from out of state, is part of a years-long trend within Massachusetts’ biennial ballot question fights, which have set some type of new spending record every election cycle since 2014. It’s also alarming lawmakers and others wary of the rising influence of money in state politics, particularly for a process designed to give voters a bigger megaphone in policy-making.
“The pitfalls of having a ballot initiative, like the two questions we have now, is it encourages both sides, or many sides, to spend an enormous amount of money on campaign ads and consultants and digital advertising . . . to take these policies directly to the voters,” said state Senator Paul R. Feeney, a Foxborough Democrat who said he’s voting yes on both ballot questions. “And that’s a problem."
With Question 1, voters are revisiting a measure they overwhelmingly approved in 2012, which allowed independent repair shops to plug into a car and access the same digital codes that car dealers and their mechanics use to help diagnose problems. (The Legislature tweaked the law the next year.)
This time, a coalition of aftermarket businesses are financing an initiative to allow broader access to the mechanical data transmitted wirelessly from a car, known as telematics. It’s set off a feverish, and often exaggerated, advertising war funded by two groups: the Right to Repair Committee, which is pushing the initiative, and the Coalition for Safe and Secure Data, which is fighting it.
Of the $26.5 million reportedly raised by the opponents, just a single, $100 contribution came from within Massachusetts, and it wasn’t even cash, state records show. The staff at a Cape Cod dealership offered time helping the committee, which is considered an in-kind donation. The rest flooded in from automakers, such as General Motors, Toyota, Ford, or Nissan, hoping to stave off the mandates included in the proposal.
The Right to Repair Committee, which touts the backing of 1,600 independent repair shops, has taken less than $5,000 from Massachusetts sources, meaning virtually all of the $24.4 million it has raised came from companies such as Advance Auto Parts, AutoZone, and others who provide the aftermarket parts that mechanics and car owners buy.
Proponents argue that without opening wider access to the wireless data, motorists could increasingly be funneled toward dealerships for repairs, undercutting independent shops. Opponents dismiss that potential and have waged a campaign warning that the proposal could jeopardize people’s personal data.
The two committees have spent nearly identical amounts in making their pitch, driving total expenditures to $42.9 million so far and already topping the previous record of $41.2 million for a single ballot question. That was set in 2016 over the failed initiative to lift the cap on charter schools in the state, and groups supporting that measure also faced hefty fines for hiding the identity of their donors.
It’s also possible one, or both, of the Question 1 committees could set a new mark for spending by a single committee. The record is currently held by hospital-backed group that spent $24.7 million two years ago to defeat a ballot measure that would have regulated nurse staffing levels.
Spending in political campaigns often plays a major role, but its impact can be particularly acute for ballot questions, political observers say. Voters likely have less information on ballot initiatives, inflating the sway TV or digital advertising can have, and they often have fewer partisan cues to follow than they would in an election between Democratic and Republican candidates.
The legal groundwork allowing corporate spending on ballot initiatives was laid 42 years ago with the case of First National Bank of Boston v. Bellotti, in which a split Supreme Court struck down a Massachusetts state law that banned corporate donations in ballot initiatives unless the company’s interests were directly involved.
Since then, the 2010 Citizens United vs Federal Election Commission decision, famously prohibiting restrictions on independent political spending by corporations, has “created a corporate culture that embraces direct spending in elections,” said Costas Panagopoulos, chairman of Northeastern University’s political science department.
“This is the kind of spending that voters are often very skeptical and critical of,” said Panagopoulos, who chaired a commission — created through a 2018 ballot question — charged with considering and recommending an amendment to the US Constitution to void the Citizens United ruling.
Even more, 2020 could see the highest level of spending for ballot questions overall. Combined with the committee supporting the ranked-choice voting initiative, the three groups have already reported $50.8 million in expenditures. (A group opposing ranked-choice voting has spent just $2,000.)
The current high-water mark is $57.5 million, set in 2016 when four questions were on the ballot.
The ranked-choice initiative has drawn its own share of hefty financing from out-of-state advocates. But the fact the committees battling over Question 1 are funded almost entirely by out-of-state corporate interests, with automakers on one side and auto parts dealers on the other, underscore how large the proposal looms in the industry.
“They have all the incentive in the world to spend as much as possible because they’re anticipating a financial benefit at the end," said Pam Wilmot, vice president of state operations for Common Cause, a government watchdog organization.
Both committees' defense of the financing creates a circular argument: They have raised, and spent, what they did because it was necessary to counter the other.
“We’re not the ones who are proposing to change a law,” said Conor Yunits, a spokesman for the Coalition for Safe and Secure Data. “Our side has spent all this money to defend the [current Right to Repair] law that everyone agrees works.”
Rob Gray, chief strategist for the Right to Repair Committee, said the money it invested was necessary to help persuade voters to expand the law and protect independent mechanics from losing a competitive advantage.
“Once the automakers put down $26 million down against it, we raised the money to respond," Gray said. “It’s a small price to pay to keep the auto repair market open."
Matt Stout can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @mattpstout.