When I go to the polls this week, I plan to vote No on Question 1, the proposed amendment to the Massachusetts Constitution that would impose a permanent surtax of 4 percent on all income above $1 million. The current income tax rate is 5 percent, so the “millionaire tax,” if approved, would jump to 9 percent — an 80 percent increase in the marginal tax rate.
On Question 4, I intend to vote Yes. That is the referendum on the new state law authorizing undocumented immigrants to apply for a Massachusetts driver’s license. The statute is on the books but has not yet gone into effect; the referendum asks voters whether to retain the law or repeal it. My Yes is a vote to keep the law intact.
On the face of it, these two ballot measures have nothing to do with each other. I expect that most left-leaning Massachusetts voters will favor both the surtax and the driver’s license law, while most Bay State conservatives who oppose the higher tax will also vote against letting immigrants without legal status get licenses to drive.
Yet to my mind, both campaigns are fueled by the same ignominious motivation: the desire to isolate and punish a disfavored minority.
Those clamoring for a steep surtax on anyone reporting more than $1 million in income repeatedly trumpet the message that only the tiniest sliver of Massachusetts residents would have to pay it. The pro-tax forces camouflage their pitch behind clouds of rhetoric about making Massachusetts “fairer” and spending more on education and transportation. Underneath the PR, however, is a zealousness to scapegoat and penalize the “1 percent” — to provoke resentment against the well-off for supposedly failing to bear a fair share of the state’s fiscal needs. An old maxim defines unbridled democracy as four wolves and a sheep voting on what to have for lunch. Question 1′s proponents keep reminding voters that the sheep can be targeted with impunity because there are so few of them.
Equally spiteful is the eagerness of Question 4′s promoters to bar undocumented immigrants from obtaining a driver’s license. On occasion, they drape their motives in reasonable-sounding concerns about ballot security and public safety. But it’s no secret that hostility to the license law is largely a function of hostility toward foreigners who came to the United States without proper immigration papers.
The website of the repeal campaign seethes with animus against migrants who don’t have green cards. Under the heading “Why vote No on Question 4?” it answers, “We cannot reward people who broke our laws to be here.” It warns that retaining the law “will bring more illegal immigration to Massachusetts,” along with “everything that comes with illegal immigration: violent gangs, criminals, and drugs.”
The same bile is reflected in the official statement submitted by the No on 4 campaign for the secretary of state’s official voter guide to the 2022 ballot. “This bill,” it declares, “is patently unfair to those who have taken the time to immigrate to our great country via legal means.” During debates, on talk shows, and in editorial columns, foes of the license law consistently make it clear that what animates their opposition is resentment of the migrants who crossed the border without an immigration visa.
Both ballot campaigns rely on arguments that are flimsy or false. Supporters of the surtax assert that it will generate an additional $2 billion a year for public education and transportation in Massachusetts. But there is no requirement in the proposed amendment that funding for education and transportation be increased by a single penny. Even less defensible is the contention that the surtax will affect only the superrich. Analysts from the Pioneer Institute and Tufts University have demonstrated that roughly half the households that would be vulnerable to the surtax would be “millionaires” for one year only — typically taxpayers selling a business or a home in preparation for retirement.
As for driver’s licenses, the repeal advocates’ main attempt at a policy-based argument is that letting undocumented immigrants apply for a license could lead to voter fraud, since the Registry of Motor Vehicles can register eligible voters. But it’s a meritless claim. No applicant can be registered to vote without first providing the RMV with a US birth certificate, an American passport, or naturalization papers. Hundreds of thousands of green card holders in Massachusetts — noncitizens who are here lawfully — have always been permitted to get a regular driver’s license. If they don’t pose a threat to ballot integrity, why would any other noncitizens?
Yet for the activists who lobbied or gathered signatures to get Question 1 and Question 4 on the ballot, my sense is that the policy arguments are mere fig leaves. More meaningful by far is antipathy toward a segment of the population they stigmatize, disrespect, or feel justified in treating worse than they would want to be treated themselves. They are engaged in what ethicists call “othering” — demonizing millionaires (in the case of Question 1) or undocumented migrants (for Question 4) and letting that aversion propel their ballot campaign.
Millionaires and undocumented immigrants may not seem to have much in common. I don’t doubt that ballot activists in each camp — pro-surtax and anti-driver’s license — will scoff at the suggestion that the minority they want to disadvantage is entitled to sympathy. That’s the logic of scapegoaters: Abuse is OK, as long as it’s directed at those who deserve it. Some scapegoats have a large income. Some lack immigration documents. Voters are being asked which scapegoat they wish to mistreat. My answer is: Neither.
Jeff Jacoby can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @jeff_jacoby. To subscribe to Arguable, his weekly newsletter, visit bitly.com/Arguable.