Breaking Down the Ballot Questions

Simply Civics Information for Voters

[A quick disclaimer: This blog post will not endorse positions on any of the 4 ballot questions. It’s up to you to decide how to vote. With that in mind, let’s make sure you make the right decisions for you!]

When we go to the polls on Election Day, we get to vote for candidates. What’s also exciting, though, is slightly further down the ballot. We get to be legislators for a day, directly influencing policy through the ballot questions.

The 2016 ballot questions seem to be advertised everywhere across Massachusetts: on yard signs, in commercials, on the radio. You’ve seen ads about each of these issues at some point. The ballot initiatives are:

  1. Allow a Second Slot Parlor
  2. Lift the Charter School Cap
  3. Prohibit Farm Animal Containment
  4. Legalize Recreational Marijuana

The ads don’t always give us the whole picture, though. It’s crucial to learn the different dimensions of each question in order to make an informed decision on Election Day.

Luckily, there are a plethora of resources for voter education on the ballot questions. Here are a few of my favorites:

1. The Red Book

The Secretary of the Commonwealth sends a packet called “Information for Voters” to homes or registered voters in Massachusetts. There’s also a digital version online. The book contains basically everything you need to know about the general election, including information about the ballot questions. For each ballot question, the book breaks it down into what a “yes” vote would do and what a “no” vote would do. You can read the fiscal consequences and arguments in favor of or in opposition to the initiative.

If you’d like a hard copy of the book, you can pick one up at the Brookline Main Branch Library. Alternatively, you can visit your Clerk’s office.

2. WBUR’s Election Ballot Debate Series

WBUR covers the ballot questions comprehensively. Radio Boston hosted a 4-week debate series at UMass Boston with the Boston Globe. You can find recordings of each of the 4 debates on their website, along with additional reporting about the questions. You have the option to download or stream the audio from each debate. Listening to these would definitely make your commute or errands go by a lot faster!

3. WGBH at the EMK Institute Tonight (Free Event)

WGBH’s Jim Braude is moderating a second panel discussion this evening at the Edward M. Kennedy Institute about Question #2: Lifting the Charter School Cap. Tickets are still available! Register online now. Here are the details:

Thursday, October 27
7:00PM-8:30PM (Doors open at 6:00PM)
Edward M. Kennedy for the United States Senate, Boston

The panel consists of:

  • Jessica Tang, Boston Teacher’s Union Director of Organizing
  • Chris Gabrieli, Chairman and CEO of Empower Schools, Chairman of the Massachusetts Board of Higher Education, and lecturer at Harvard’s Graduate School of Education
  • Michael Curry, President of the Boston branch of the NAACP; and
  • Marty Walz, former Massachusetts State Representative and Principal at Marty Walz and Associates.

If you get there early, I recommend you tour the EMK Institute! In addition to the full-scale reproduction of the U.S. Senate Chamber, the Institute also has a reproduction of Senator Edward Kennedy’s office, as well as many interactive exhibits about the Senate.

4. Vote411

Visit Vote411.org for a voter guide specific to your precinct. Type in your address and you’ll see the races on your ballot and the ballot questions. You can compare candidates’ positions and read arguments for and against ballot questions.

The best feature is that you can select how you’re voting for each race or issue, and print out your preferences to bring with you on Election Day. That way, you won’t get mixed up about what a yes or no vote means for each ballot question. You can always change your mind, of course, but it’s helpful to do your homework in advance of the big day. Just make sure you don’t leave your print-out in the voting booth, to interfere with others’ voting.

5. Myra Kraft Open Classroom

I wrote about the Myra Kraft Open Classroom in a previous post. I’m bringing it up again because it really is a great resource and because it’s relevant to this post!

Northeastern University hosts a free class each week about the election. Next week’s topic is: “Down the Ballot: Key Elections and Issues in Congress and the States.” Attendees will have an opportunity to ask the guest speakers about the ballot questions and congressional races.

Here are the details:

Wednesday, November 2nd
6:00PM-8:00PM
Northeastern University, West Village F, Room 20

To note, the class will continue to meet on Wednesdays for the rest of the semester. Following November 8th, the class will focus on President Obama’s legacy and the lessons learned from the election.

You can read more about the class schedule here.

6. People Around You

Probably the best resources are the people around you. Maybe you don’t want to talk to your friends, family, and coworkers about the presidential race because of the emotions it stirs up. Then don’t. Talk about the ballot questions instead. They’re a low-risk and fun conversation starter, and we all have something to contribute to the debate.

Ask the teachers in your life about the charter school question (#2), or family members about farm animal rights (#3). My roommates have really expanded my thinking about the implications of #3. During your lunch break at work, ask your colleagues about what they think an additional slot parlor in Massachusetts (#1) would add to the economy. When you’re out with your friends, or talking to someone in the public health field, discuss the dynamics of legalizing recreational marijuana (#4).

We each get to be policymakers on November 8th, so let’s work together to see what solutions make the most sense for our communities.

35 States

Ballot questions are not unique to Massachusetts, of course. 34 other states have ballot initiatives this November. Ballotpedia is a great resource for the election in general and has a lot of information about the ballot initiatives by state. At a glance, here are some of the big issues to follow on November 8th:

  • 9 states have questions about marijuana
  • 5 states have questions about the minimum wage
  • 5 states have questions about healthcare
  • 4 states have questions about gun laws

In addition to Ballotpedia, NPR’s Meg Anderson published a very thorough and well-researched article about ballot initiatives by state. Check it out.

Get Your Questions Answered

Research your state’s ballot questions before you get to the polls, because this is your chance to influence policy directly. Sort out the pros and cons ahead of time.

If you find any additional resources, please share them with me via email and I’ll tweet them out.

Enjoy your policymaking!

Unpacking Health Care Policy

Simply Civics

The Honorable Michael Dukakis

The third floor of the Brookline Senior Center was packed last Wednesday night. Brookliners gathered for the 20th Annual Public Health Policy Forum, presented by the Friends of Brookline Public Health and Brookline Adult & Community Education. The theme was: “Celebrating 20 Years of Advocating for Health Care Reform: Looking Back, Looking Forward.”

I barely found a seat!

The event began with welcoming remarks from the co-founders of Friends of Brookline Public Health: Alan Balsam, PhD, MPH, the Director of Brookline Public Health & Human Services; and J. Jacques Carter, MD.

Dr. Carter introduced the night’s moderator, the Honorable Michael Dukakis.

You may not know that former Governor Dukakis is a Brookline native. He started his public service career as a Brookline Town Meeting Member and was elected to the Massachusetts Legislature in 1962. He served three terms as Governor of Massachusetts, first from 1975-1979 and then again from 1983-1991. During that time, he was the Democratic Party nominee for President of the United States in the 1988 elections. And he’s from Brookline!

The panelists

I sat in awe as former Governor Dukakis introduced the panelists.  Each of the panelists has contributed so much to the field of public health through their respective careers.

  • Dr. Judy Ann Bigby served as the Commonwealth’s Secretary of Health and Human Services from 2007 to 2013. She was responsible for implementing many aspects of the 2006 health care reform law. She is currently a Senior Fellow with Mathematica Policy Research, located in Cambridge.
  • Amy Whitcomb Slemmer is the Executive Director of Health Care for All in Massachusetts. Health Care for All is a “nonprofit advocacy organization working to create a health care system that provides comprehensive, affordable, accessible, and culturally competent care to everyone, especially the most vulnerable among us.” (HCFA website).
  • Dolores Mitchell recently retired as Executive Director of the Group Insurance Commission after 29 years of service! The GIC provides health-related services to the Commonwealth’s employees, retirees and their dependents, municipalities, and other entities. Congratulations to Ms. Mitchell on her 29 years of service to the Commonwealth!
  • John McDonough is the Professor of Public Health Practice, Department of Health Policy & Management, at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health. He served as the Senior Advisor on National Health Reform to the U.S. Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions. He worked on both the writing and passage of the Affordable Care Act.

As Governor Dukakis pointed out, three of the four panelists were women!

A brief health policy primer

Throughout the forum, the panelists discussed the dimensions of public health policy in recent years and the challenges that lie ahead.

In 2006, Massachusetts passed a health care reform bill guaranteeing coverage to most residents of the Commonwealth. As Dr. Bigby explained, 500,000 people gained insurance in 2006, many of whom had previously struggled the most to get health care.

Four years later, in 2010, President Obama and Congress passed the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (ACA). Among other statutes, it mandated health insurance coverage for all Americans.

Where we are now

Today, many more Americans are insured. Consequently, fewer individuals find themselves financially bankrupted by medical crises. Plus, more Americans are receiving preventative medical care. Since 2010, Massachusetts has had the smallest increase in health care costs yet.

It’s not as simple as that, though. Mandated health insurance isn’t a one and done deal, and not everyone is in agreement about whether it’s the right solution.

The best way for us to develop informed opinions is through learning more about it. I’ll be the first to say my knowledge of the Affordable Care Act is just about a drop in the bucket of what the law entails. However, that’s one of the great aspects of attending an event like this. It exposed me to many aspects of health care reform, and then prompted me to do some more research on my own.

To learn more about the Affordable Care Act, check out the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services website. It has the full text and a guide with key features of the law.

Costs

One of the pressing issues right now, the panelists explained, is figuring out how to reign in the costs of our complex health care system. Medication prices are going up, which means the cost of care is also increasing.

Rising health care costs affect everyone: consumers, families, health insurance companies, medical practices, and hospitals.

Leaders have proposed reform in this area, particularly at the state level. Massachusetts State Senator Mark Montigny (D) sponsored Senate Bill 1048, An Act to promote transparency and cost control of pharmaceutical drug prices. You can follow the bill’s progress here.

Participating in policy

Because we live in a democracy, we each have a say in the future of our health care system. In fact, we can participate in our national policy discussions.

It’s important for each of us to be informed and to communicate our views and ideas to our elected officials, both at the state and national level.

If you’re interested in following cost control initiatives at the state level, the legislature has a Joint Committee on Health Care Financing. You can track bills and attend hearings.

Lastly, be in touch with your elected officials! They want to hear from their constituents about where they stand. Massachusetts residents, you can find your state legislators here.

Looking ahead

We know that the health care system is complex. The participants, speakers, and panelists at the forum brought up issues that impact all of us, wherever we live across the city, country, or world.

However, that doesn’t mean there aren’t sustainable and high-quality solutions out there. If we think boldly, we can both support the world-class medical system in America and bring down costs.

I wonder what updates the panelists will share this time next year at the 21st Annual Public Health Policy Forum.