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Even in progressive Massachusetts, it was a toss-up on whether to tax the rich

The tight margin on Question 1 reflects Massachusetts’ long-held reluctance to hike taxes, despite its progressive reputation.

Voting on Question 1 - which would increase taxes on incomes over $1 million in Massachusetts - remained close on Wednesday morning, with nearly 90 percent of the vote counted.Carlin Stiehl for The Boston Globe

After a years-long bitter fight over the economic future of Massachusetts, both sides of the income tax ballot question finally agreed on one thing: This contest would be too close to call on Election Night.

Turns out both sides got it right: The Associated Press didn’t call the race until early Wednesday afternoon. The narrow result reflects how the Massachusetts electorate remains deeply divided on whether to raise taxes on the wealthy – or perhaps anyone. Five other attempts to change the state constitution to allow for a graduated income tax failed spectacularly.

And who can forget, Massachusetts is the place that once famously started a revolution rather than pay more in taxes.

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Polls, as recently as three weeks ago, had indicated that this time might be different. Question 1 proposes an additional four percent tax on annual incomes over $1 million, with the proceeds to fund education and transportation. It was expected to win with modest support tallying in the mid to high 50 percent range. The result was much closer, with the Yes side winning with 52 percent of the vote.

In other words, even in our progressive state, it’s basically a toss up on whether to tax the rich.

That’s no surprise to Jen Benson, president of the Alliance for Business Leadership, the only business group to support Question 1. Previously, Benson served as a state representative and was among those lawmakers who voted to put the measure on the ballot. She said this one confounded voters.

Senator Elizabeth Warren spoke to attendees at the Yes on 1 and Yes on 4 watch party at the Colonnade Hotel in Boston Tuesday night.Carlin Stiehl for The Boston Globe

“Both campaigns have worked really hard at putting out information, or misinformation depending on your point of view,” she said. “A lot of people didn’t understand or still had questions when they went to the polls. It’s a good example of why it’s so difficult for complicated policy to be decided at the polls.”

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I can attest to that based on the flood of e-mails from readers each time I wrote about the so-called millionaires tax. Both campaigns blitzed voters with slick TV ads in what turned out to be the most expensive state-wide race this season. For those keeping score at home, supporters raised about $28.5 million, largely from teachers unions, while opponents brought in about $14.7 million from a handful of flush donors, according to state campaign filings.

The “yes” side assured people only the rich would pay more, while the “no” side warned that homeowners and small business owners would get hit when they sell their homes and businesses. Opponents also fed into the public’s mistrust of the Legislature and whether the money would be spent appropriately.

In the final days of the campaigns, both sides predicted the vote would be tighter than what public polling had revealed. Consider this: Who wants to admit they are against taxing millionaires even it means more funding for schools and fixing the MBTA?

“Sometimes they’re embarrassed,” said Benson. “On a question like this, where it’s about your own personal finances versus the greater good, people might feel like it’s hard to admit how they’re going to vote in a poll.”

Voters in Greater Boston’s urban core, where the measure won by a landslide played a pivotal role. Boston carried the measure with 107,804 votes, or 65 percent, while Cambridge delivered 24,241 votes, a whopping 75 percent approval. And in Somerville, 79 percent approved the surtax, adding another 20,956 votes to the yes margin.

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Roughly 90,000 votes separate the winning side from the losing.

Question 1 also found support in gateway cities such as Chelsea, Brockton, Malden, and Worcester, while many towns in Southeastern and Central Massachusetts voted against, as did the South Shore and some of Boston’s wealthier suburbs, including Wellesley and Weston.

“W towns were a no, kind of parochially,” observed Scott Ferson, a Democratic strategist.

Ferson pointed out that Question 1 passing, even by a slim margin, would represent a significant victory for the progressive wing of the state.

“We haven’t passed a tax increase for so long that the fact that it looks like it’s going to win is kind of remarkable,” he said.

On Tuesday night both sides settled in for what was expected to be a long evening, though by midnight they began packing it in, largely because the hotels were about to kick them out of their rented ballrooms.

Dan Cence, the spokesperson for The Coalition to Stop the Tax Hike, speaks at an election night watch party Tuesday night at the Westin Hotel in Copley Square.Jim Davis/Globe Staff

The “no” coalition had gathered at the Westin Copley with a few dozen small business owners, donors, and campaign staffers cycling in and out of a staid affair with an open bar and carving station. I was hoping to run into some of the bigwig supporters who ponied up at least $1 million, but no such luck hobnobbing with Patriots owner Bob Kraft, New Balance chairman Jim Davis, or Suffolk Construction boss John Fish.

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No cranberry farmer either, but I didn’t expect Leo Cakounes, the star of the opposition’s TV ads, to ever talk to the media again after my colleague Yvonne Abraham finished with him.

A few blocks away at the Colonnade, the “yes” side filled a ballroom along with supporters of Question 4, a measure to keep a law that would allow people without legal immigration status to obtain a driver’s license. (That proposal also passed narrowly.)

It was a much more raucous atmosphere, filled with teachers, union supporters and politicians including state senators Lydia Edwards and Adam Gomez, and Massachusetts Teachers Association president Max Page. Salsa dancing, lots of selfies, and even a cameo from Senator Elizabeth Warren, who was mobbed like a rock star by dozens of attendees.

“We don’t know yet for sure how it all comes out,” Warren said. “A lot of places around this country would back off from a fight like this. They don’t take on those who have money, they don’t take on people who have power already in the system. But not here in Massachusetts.”

Even here, though, that fight was a pretty close call.


Shirley Leung is a Business columnist. She can be reached at shirley.leung@globe.com.