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Gig workers question clears first hurdle before 2022 ballot

Attorney General Maura Healey approves 17 ballot petitions

The logo for Uber, one of the tech companies backing a proposed 2022 ballot question.Richard Drew/Associated Press

A controversial ballot question that could reshape the gig economy moved one step closer to appearing before Massachusetts voters on the 2022 ballot.

On Wednesday, Attorney General Maura Healey certified 17 ballot petitions as meeting constitutional muster, including questions on voter identification, happy hour, the legal status of app-based drivers, and more.

That’s just the first hurdle of many: Proponents of each question still have to gather more than 80,000 signatures over the next few months, and, if the Legislature doesn’t take action on the petitions, more than 13,000 additional signatures in the spring. It’s a taxing, expensive process; many initiatives don’t make the ballot after missing one or more requirement.

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And there’s always the possibility that a lawsuit could keep a petition from reaching voters, especially for controversial measures like the gig workers question.

Thirteen initiatives were nixed in Healey’s review, she announced, including several that had the backing of the Massachusetts Republican Party. One seeking “to preserve the lives of children born alive,” was rejected because, the agency said, “its provisions are so ambiguous that it is impossible to determine, or inform potential voters of, the proposed law’s meaning.” Healey’s office also rejected one the party claimed targeted “critical race theory,” in part because “it is inconsistent with the right to free speech.”

Ballot petitions are reviewed under strict constitutional standards, the office said in a news release. They cannot infringe on protected constitutional rights and cannot pertain to subjects like religion or the power of the courts.

Perhaps the most closely watched is the question on the legal classification of gig workers in Massachusetts. A coalition backed by tech companies such as Uber, Lyft, DoorDash, and Instacart seeks to keep classifying their drivers and deliverers as independent contractors, not employees, while offering them some new benefits. An opposing group, with support from large labor organizations, says those benefits are paltry compared with what drivers should already be getting under state law.

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The tech-backed coalition cheered Healey’s decision Wednesday, providing reporters with statements from app-based workers who said they support the ballot question.

“We believe that Massachusetts voters will support what drivers are asking for: to remain independent contractors, in control of our own schedules, while gaining new benefits,” said Brittney Woods of Boston, who drives with DoorDash. “That flexibility and control is why we drive.”

The labor-backed coalition opposing the ballot question, which earlier put out a legal memorandum asking Healey not to greenlight it, will “carefully consider our litigation options,” said coalition director Mike Firestone.

“The Uber/Big Tech ballot measure cheats workers, shields these massive companies from liability to customers, and makes Massachusetts taxpayers pick up the tab,” Firestone said.

Firestone previously served as Healey’s chief of staff and campaign manager.

The measure has already spurred two formal complaints to state campaign finance authorities, with critics pointing the finger at proponents and proponents pointing right back again. That early mudslinging foreshadows what could well prove to be the ugliest, priciest ballot initiative fight in Massachusetts history, a battle with fronts in the courts and on the airwaves.

In August, the labor-backed Coalition to Protect Workers’ Rights — which opposes the ballot question — accused the tech-backed Coalition for Independent Work of raising and spending money without properly disclosing it. Days later, the tech-backed group fired back, asking state campaign finance authorities to investigate their rivals for improper disclosures of fund-raising and spending.

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Both coalitions have dismissed their rival’s accusations as meritless. A spokesman for the state’s Office of Campaign and Political Finance, Jason Tait, said the office does not confirm the existence of such complaints but does review each one that is submitted to the office.

It’s a fight that may sound familiar to California’s Proposition 22, a similar measure that voters approved last year after tech companies spent $200 million successfully pushing it. A California court recently struck down Prop 22 as unconstitutional under that state’s laws, a ruling that will be appealed and that does not have direct legal bearing on Massachusetts’ version.

Healey’s staff decided that the ballot question passed legal muster even as their colleagues in another division of the attorney general’s office actively sue Uber and Lyft, claiming they are violating state law by misclassifying drivers as independent contractors. Healey has said the two are entirely separate and her personal views do not inform the process of vetting ballot questions.

The attorney general’s office approved two versions of the gig workers ballot question. They are identical but for a provision included in only one version that would require drivers to undergo paid safety training sessions on topics like collision avoidance and sexual assault prevention. Proponents are moving ahead with both versions of the question, a spokesman said.

Already expected to be on next fall’s ballot: a constitutional amendment that would impose a 4 percent surtax on annual personal income above $1 million. That measure cleared its last procedural hurdle before the 2022 ballot in June, when overwhelming majorities in the Democratic-dominated Legislature backed it.

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Voters may also get the chance to opine on issues ranging from voter identification requirements to happy hours.

Massachusetts banned happy hours in the 1980s after a series of drunken driving tragedies. Despite some movement at the Legislature, and widespread public support for bringing it back, Governor Charlie Baker has said he would “be hard pressed to support changing it.” The ballot question seeks to permit happy hour drink specials.

Another would require voters to present a government-issued photo ID before casting a ballot. Massachusetts does not ask voters to present identification at the polls, with some exceptions, such as for first-time voters.

Voting rights advocates say that ID requirements are discriminatory against people of color and low-income voters, and are not intended to solve a legitimate public policy problem.

A spokeswoman for the secretary of state’s office said she is not aware of any recent voter fraud cases in Massachusetts.

Healey declined to certify a petition seeking to ban teachers from presenting US history “with the specific intent of making any such students feel personally responsible, at fault or liable, either individually or as a member of a racial or ethnic group, for the actions or omissions of others.”

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The Massachusetts GOP had claimed that that initiative would target “critical race theory,” though the phrase did not appear in the text itself.

Critical race theory is an academic doctrine built on the idea that modern law and other institutions were shaped by historical patterns of racism that continue to disadvantage people of color and Black people in particular. Critics on the right have attempted to paint the theory with a broad brush, claiming it accuses all white Americans of racism and attempts to make students feel guilty for historical events they played no role in. A number of red states have passed laws banning “critical race theory,” limiting how educators can talk about the country’s troubled racial history.

In rejecting the initiative, agency staff wrote, “read literally, a teacher could violate this proposed law based on their students’ feelings in receiving instruction, and as a result, teachers’ speech about ‘our country’s history’ is chilled by this proposed law.”

The state Republican party also slammed Healey for refusing to certify the “born alive” abortion-related petition, suggesting Healey’s personal politics — she is a strong supporter of abortion rights — had come into play. The attorney general’s office said it rejected the petition because it was “ambiguous,” an explanation the party scoffed at.

“Today’s denial by AG Healey confirms the radical left has no problem eliminating medical care for babies born alive,” GOP Chairman Jim Lyons said in a statement. “The attorney general’s failure to put her political views aside constitutes a dereliction of her duty.”


Emma Platoff can be reached at emma.platoff@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @emmaplatoff.