Massachusetts voters overwhelmingly approved a ballot question Tuesday expanding the state’s “Right to Repair” law, a decision with potentially far-reaching ramifications in the automotive industry about who has access to the highly proprietary data being transmitted by cars.
But the electorate rejected a transformative measure to implement ranked-choice voting, dealing a blow to a movement that had drawn millions in out-of-state support and the backing of Massachusetts’ leading Democrats in the hopes of reshaping the state’s election system.
The committee pushing the measure, known as Question 2, conceded shortly after midnight, with unofficial results showing voters opting against the measure, 55 to 45 percent, with nearly 83 percent of precincts reporting, according to the Associated Press.
Opponents of the Right to Repair initiative, known as Question 1, conceded defeat shortly before 10 p.m. Unofficial results showed voters backing that measure by a 3-to-1 margin — 75 percent to 25 percent — also with about 83 percent reporting.
Under the newly approved Right to Repair law — which drew at least $43 million in spending, the most for a ballot question in state history — automakers will be required to provide car owners and independent mechanics with access to wireless mechanical data, known as telematics, starting with model year 2022 cars.
The Right to Repair Committee, which had raised at least $24 million pushing the measure, framed it as a matter of preserving choices for car owners about where to get their car fixed, and protecting the competitive edge of independent mechanics around the state.
“Tonight is a great victory for the 1,600 independent repair shops here in Massachusetts, and the 40,000 jobs in the aftermarket,” said Tommy Hickey, the committee’s director. “It’s pretty clear in the ballot what the will of the voters was.”
The vote is likely to rumble quickly through the automotive world, which has already been roiled by the debate about who should have access to the highly proprietary data. It also remains to be seen whether lawmakers amend the ballot question’s language after federal officials raised concerns about its proposed timeline.
The Coalition for Safe and Secure Data, an automaker-backed committee that fiercely opposed the question, conceded Tuesday, though it contended the data privacy concerns it had raised remain.
“Today’s vote will do nothing to enhance that right [to repair] — it will only grant real-time, two-way access to your vehicle and increase risk,” the group said in a statement.
The new law builds on a measure voters passed in 2012 that first 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.
That law, which legislators later tweaked in 2013, prompted automakers to agree to a memorandum of understanding that set similar requirements across the country.
It’s unclear if the industry could follow a similar path on telematics. That system, often found in late-model cars, monitors and remits real-time readings on the vehicle back to the manufacturer, and the type of data can vary between manufacturers.
Under the newly approved law, manufacturers will be required to equip vehicles starting with 2022 models with an open-access platform for that data. Owners could then retrieve the mechanical readings through a mobile app, and grant a local repair shop access to help in repairs.
The debate over the measure quickly evolved into an expensive, and often hyperbolic, advertising war over cybersecurity and drivers' personal data. The Coalition for Safe and Secure Data, backed by nearly $26 million in contributions from General Motors, Toyota, and other manufacturers, ran a series of ads insinuating that the garage codes to your home could be at risk, or that “domestic violence advocates” say predators could use a car’s data to track their victim’s location.
But cybersecurity experts differed on how much risk the ballot question could pose to someone’s data, and several said the claims pushed by automakers veered into exaggeration and “fear-mongering.”
The newly passed measure had faced its own questions. It does not 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.
On Question 2, the outcome was a surprise decision in a state where officials have long prided themselves on being at the forefront of progressive policy-making. The measure’s supporters had hoped a victory would both usher in expansive changes to Massachusetts elections, while creating a toehold for wider electoral reform across the country.
“Structural reform is a marathon, not a sprint. Changing the status quo — especially during this pandemic — is never an easy task,” said Evan Falchuk, the Yes on 2 committee’s chairman. “We are obviously deeply disappointed that we came up short in this election.”
The committee pushing the ballot question had drawn from the leadership of the successful ranked-choice voting effort in Maine, where voters approved it four years ago, and it had spent nearly $8 million by the end of October pitching the concept across Massachusetts. A committee opposing the measure had spent just $2,000.
But unofficial results showed most voters did not embrace a system that drew criticism from the state Republican Party, conservative groups, and notably, Governor Charlie Baker. The moderate Republican said he feared it would create another “layer of complication” for voters.
“We are heartened to know that the people of the Commonwealth heeded our warning against this unfair and complicated system,” said Anthony Amore, a former Republican candidate for secretary of state.
Under the proposed law, voters would have had the option of ranking candidates for an office in order of preference. If a candidate gets more than 50 percent of the first-choice votes, they are the winner. But if no one does, the candidate with the fewest votes is stripped away and those voters are reallocated to the remaining candidates based on their second choice.
The process, also known as instant-runoff voting, goes for as many rounds as it takes for one candidate to earn a majority of votes.
The new system would be used for primary and general elections for statewide offices — governor, attorney general, and more — as well as congressional, state legislative, and district attorney races starting in 2022. It would not apply to presidential or municipal elections.
A flood of high-profile officials had backed the measure, from Senators Elizabeth Warren and Edward J. Markey to former governors Deval Patrick and Bill Weld, who touted the system as a way to eliminate so-called spoilers and incentivize candidates to appeal to broader swaths of the electorate.
Opponents, however, warned of several drawbacks. Should a race go into extra rounds of counting, it can mean long delays until a race is decided. And it’s unclear how much it would cost to implement the new system in Massachusetts or whether it would face a constitutional challenge.
“We were attempting to do something historic in Massachusetts and fell short,” said Cara Brown McCormick, the Yes on 2 campaign manager. “But the incredible groundswell of support from volunteers and reformers that assembled behind this campaign is reason enough to stay optimistic about the future of our democracy.”
Matt Stout can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @mattpstout.