Massachusetts voters had to decide on just two statewide ballot questions this month. But they’ve never seen so much money spent trying to sway their opinion on them.
This year’s slate of ballot initiatives set new records for virtually every metric of spending: the most money expended by a single committee in Massachusetts history, the most spent on a single question, and with nearly $60 million reported so far, the most ever spent in a single year on all ballot questions.
The hefty spending was driven largely by Question 1, which proposed — and voters overwhelmingly approved — expanding the state’s “Right to Repair” law, requiring auto manufacturers to give car owners and independent mechanics access to the wireless mechanical data spit out by their vehicles.
The Coalition for Safe and Secure Data, an automaker-funded effort to defeat the measure, reported spending more than $26.1 million as of the end of October, topping the record held by the hospital-backed group that spent $24.7 million two years ago to defeat a ballot measure that would have regulated nurse staffing levels.
The Right to Repair Committee, which raised nearly $25 million from aftermarket companies to push the initiative, reported spending $23.6 million to close October. That would mark the third-highest amount spent ever for a single committee, with the potential for that number to rise. All ballot question committees must file another report on Nov. 20, covering the first part of the month.
Together, they already had made the initiative the single-most expensive ballot question campaign even before voters had their say, a total since pushed to nearly $49.8 million. They poured the vast majority of that — roughly $38.4 million — into a torrent of TV and radio ads and other advertising, records show.
The money war was expected. The proposal could have wide-ranging ramifications on the auto industry, with the potential of pushing automakers to adopt the changes on a broader scale. A report from a Tufts University think tank said in the “most extreme case,” automakers could try to avoid complying with the new law simply by not selling new cars in Massachusetts.
Under the newly approved law, manufacturers will be required to equip vehicles starting with 2022 models with an open-access platform for the wireless data.
Meanwhile, the committee that unsuccessfully pushed a proposal to implement ranked-choice voting, known as Question 2, reported spending $9.4 million as of the end of last month, including after taking a late, $300,000 infusion from an initiative funded by John Arnold, a former energy hedge fund manager and Enron trader, and his wife, Laura. (They ultimately gave $3.66 million to the Yes on 2 committee through Action Now Initiative, the most of any single donor.)
That investment stood in stark contrast to a little-funded committee that formally opposed the ballot question. The group, chaired by a Westford Republican, had spent just $3,450 by late October, according to records. Half of that went toward several hundred lawn signs.
All combined, the four committees reported $59.2 million in spending across both questions, marking the highest ever in a single year and topping the $57.5 million spread across four initiatives in 2016.
The bulging price tag, fueled mostly by out-of-state contributions, is part of a years-long trend within Massachusetts’s biennial ballot question fights, which have set some type of new spending record every election cycle since 2014.
But what did it all buy in 2020? The two committees that spent the most in their respective debates this year ultimately lost, a departure from historic trends.
Maurice T. Cunningham, a University of Massachusetts Boston political science professor who closely studies campaign financing, previously told the Globe 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.
Matt Stout can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @mattpstout.