One of the closest statewide races in Massachusetts this election cycle was not a race for a constitutional office, but a ballot question aimed at upholding a divisive law that allows immigrants without legal status to get driver’s licenses.
The measure, known as Question 4, was among the most high-profile of a slate of ballot measures being decided Tuesday. Voters also weighed in on a possible expansion of alcohol licenses and a change to dental insurance regulations. (Another initiative asks whether Massachusetts should amend its flat 5 percent state income tax to add a surcharge on the highest earners.)
At about 11:30 p.m., supporters of Question 4 held the lead with about 54 percent, according to unofficial results. Votes against it were about 46 percent, with about 48 percent of precincts reporting Tuesday night.
Voters did approve a change to dental insurance regulations, known as Question 2, according to an Associated Press projection.
The news agency had not yet projected decisions on Question 3, about expanding alcohol licenses, and Question 1, about whether the state should amend its flat 5 percent state income tax to add a surcharge on the highest earners.
With regard to Question 2, voters decided to require dental insurers to spend at least 83 percent of insurance premiums on patient care rather than on administrative costs. Question 2 states that if insurers don’t spend enough to meet the threshold, they would have to return the money to Massachusetts patients via rebates. Voters approved the measure by a wide margin of more than 735,000 votes with just under 70 percent of precincts reporting, according to the AP.
There is no minimum threshold currently imposed on the industry.
The ballot measure was backed by dentists and opposed by insurance companies, who said say insurance premiums would rise if it passed. They say said insurers would still have largely the same administrative costs as before, but now would only be allowed to use 17 percent of the premium they collect to pay for it.
Supporters argued that dental insurance should have minimum requirements on how much to spend on patient care, similar to those already imposed on other health insurance providers. Under state law, medical insurers in Massachusetts must spend 88 percent of the premiums they collect on patient care.
Question 4, pushed by a GOP-led group funded largely by auto parts executive and GOP activist Rick Green, centers on an existing law set to go into effect next summer, if voters uphold it. The law allows people without legal immigration status to obtain a driver’s license by providing two documents that prove their identity, such as a foreign passport, birth certificate, or marriage certificate.
The law, which passed earlier this year over the objections of Governor Charlie Baker, was supported by immigrants’ rights groups, insurance companies, the attorney general, the majority of the state’s sheriffs and district attorneys, and the Massachusetts Major City Chiefs of Police, which represent cities with more than 40,000 residents.
It was enacted in June after Massachusetts legislators voted to override a veto from Baker, who said the proposal could threaten election security among other concerns.
Under the new law, the state is required to ensure that people who lack proof of legal residence are not automatically registered to vote under the state law that registers those seeking driver’s licenses who are of voting age.
The idea, the subject of fierce debate for years, would affect many of the estimated quarter-million undocumented people living in Massachusetts — and, its supporters contend, the millions of drivers they share the roads with. Critics say it rewards people who are breaking the law by living in the country without legal status and encourages others to do the same.
Luis Medina, 56, knows the power of a driver’s license. When he fled to Boston from Colombia in 1985, he drove a car to work as a chef and a landscaper, and took his children to school. But that was before he had legal status, so he was barred from legally acquiring a driver’s license.
“I had no choice,” said Medina, who now lives in Malden and works as a janitor. Medina spent Election Day knocking on doors for the Question 4 campaign as a member of the Service Employees International Union.
“Forty years ago, I was worried,” he said. “We don’t want that anymore.”
For Gladys Ortiz, the new law would mean the difference between safety and harm for the immigrant community, especially victims of domestic violence who are undocumented. Ortiz is an advocate and manager for the organization REACH Beyond Domestic Violence.
Ortiz, a Colombian immigrant, said that without a legal way to drive, many of the victims she works with will “have to remain in the shadows.”
“This is a big deal,” said Ortiz, who spent the last decade advocating for the new law. “[Driving] is a tool for them to escape. . . . This will give them freedom. As an advocate, this is so important.”
Some Republicans, however, took issue with the concept for a number of reasons, and drew on themes of election integrity and a lack of national immigration policy to persuade voters to vote “no.”
Jim Lyons, chairman of the state Republican Party, said the issue is “crucial” in Massachusetts.
“The rule of law matters,” Lyons told reporters at an election night party for Republican gubernatorial nominee Geoff Diehl. “You know, I remember when I was a young man and got my driver’s license, it was a privilege. So why are we rewarding people for bad behavior? They’re in the country illegally. They shouldn’t get their license.”
Voters at the ballot box appeared to side with their dentists Tuesday and threw their support behind Question 2, which will require dental insurances to devote at least 83 percent of patient premiums to dental care, rather than administrative costs.
According to unofficial results reported shortly before 11:40 p.m., about 71 percent of voters cast ballots in support of the measure. Nearly 29 percent voted against the measure. About 50 percent of precincts had reported results.
The ballot measure is backed by dentists and opposed by insurance companies, who say insurance premiums would rise if it passes. They say insurers would still have largely the same administrative costs as before, but now would only be allowed to use 17 percent of the premium they collect to pay for it.
Supporters argue that dental insurance should have minimum requirements on how much to spend on patient care, similar to those already imposed on other health insurance providers. Under state law, medical insurers in Massachusetts must spend 88 percent of the premiums they collect on patient care.
In a statement Tuesday night from the Massachusetts Dental Care Providers for Better Dental Benefits Committee, the group hailed what looked like a successful vote. The group predicted similar measures would be replicated in other states.
“Massachusetts voters appear to have overwhelmingly approved ballot Question 2, which would deliver first-in-the-nation dental insurance reform that will assure patient dollars are spent on patient care, protect consumers from large increases in dental insurance premiums, and provide increased transparency of and accountability for dental insurer spending,” according to the statement.
Voters turned down Question 3 at the ballot box. The measure asked voters whether the state should gradually increase the number of locations where a single company can sell beer or wine, from nine to 18. A change in the law would also have lowered the cap on all-alcohol licenses, or the number of locations where a company can sell hard alcohol, from nine to seven.
The question failed with about 55 percent of voters in opposition. Yes votes totaled about 45 percent, according to unofficial results with about 50 percent of precincts reporting around 11:40 p.m.
The ballot measure is not the first time such an issue has come up. In 2011, small, independent liquor stores and larger retail chains worked out a compromise in the state Legislature that gradually raised the limit on liquor licenses from three to nine. In 2019, the convenience store chain Cumberland Farms announced plans for a ballot measure that would lift the cap on alcohol licenses entirely for food stores like theirs.
In response, Massachusetts Package Stores Association came up with a compromise in the form of the ballot initiative.
Sahar Fatima and Daniel McDonald of the Globe staff and Globe correspondent Nick Stoico contributed to this report.