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OPINION

Why is Question 4 so confusing?

When yes means no and no means yes.

A couple sat outside tents at the State House in June in support of a bill that would allow undocumented people in Massachusetts to get driver's licenses.David L. Ryan/Globe Staff

It may not be the most complicated petition on the ballot next month, but Question 4 may very well be the most confusing for Massachusetts voters.

The underlying policy issue is straightforward enough, albeit quite controversial: Should immigrants without legal status be allowed to apply for a Massachusetts driver’s license? But that’s not the question voters will see printed on their ballot when they go to the polls Nov. 8. Question 4 asks voters to repeal a new law that will make certain undocumented immigrants eligible for a driver’s license starting next year. But in this referendum, the campaign to uphold the law is the Yes side — i.e., it rejects the repeal and keeps the new status quo — and the No campaign seeks to overturn the recently passed law.

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In other words, a no means yes, and a yes means no.

The reason why that is so complicated is a classic Massachusetts political idiosyncrasy: It’s due to a constitutional requirement. But it matters which side Yes and No are assigned to.

In general, citizen initiatives are hard to understand and most of the time that’s deliberate. To state the obvious, it comes down to campaigning and which side can get its message out effectively. It’s why the success of ballot measures is mostly determined by deep pockets; the side that can afford lobbyists and public relations firms that sometimes have no qualms about deploying misleading TV ads has a real leg up.

But political advantage is another key factor. It has long been considered conventional wisdom that there’s a bias toward the No side. A 2019 study coauthored by Joshua J. Dyck, a professor of political science at the University of Massachusetts Lowell, found evidence that opposition arguments in ballot initiatives “are more effective than support arguments because of the well-known framing negativity bias,” the researchers wrote. There have also been studies about the role of voters’ tendency to stick with the status quo of the current policy.

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Which brings me to the actual wording of Question 4. The first thing to understand is that there are two types of ballot measures in Massachusetts: initiatives and referendums. The first one allows citizens to propose constitutional amendments and new laws, whereas the second specifically asks voters to repeal a law recently enacted by the Legislature. The way each type of petition has to be worded, if it makes it to the ballot, is actually dictated in the state constitution. That’s why voters are not being asked directly if they want to repeal the newly passed driver’s license law — instead, the question is: do you approve of the law?

Incidentally, there is a good historical reference for the “Yes on 4 for Safer Roads” campaign. In the 2018 midterms, the Yes side won by a hefty margin in a hard-fought referendum on a 2016 law that protects transgender people from discrimination in public spaces — the so-called “bathroom bill.”

But there’s another challenge that might make it a little harder for the campaign to defend the driver’s license law. Because the petition for the referendum was completed and certified nearly a month after the office of Secretary of State Bill Galvin had to send the voter information booklet about the ballot measures to the printer, Question 4 did not make it in. That means voters are already starting with an information deficit about what the law does — and doesn’t — and the impacts of a Yes or No vote.

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Galvin is considering printing a one-page supplement in a handful of languages to give out at the polls that has the explanation for Question 4. Given the existing confusion about the issue, a supplement to be distributed on Nov. 8 is a sensible solution that would go a long way.

So, despite the impulse to say No to the effort to repeal the immigrant license law, say Yes to uphold the common-sense measure the Legislature passed earlier this year.


Marcela García is a Globe columnist. She can be reached at marcela.garcia@globe.com. Follow her @marcela_elisa and on Instagram @marcela_elisa.