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!

How I Spend My Wednesday Evenings

There are two main reasons why I love living in this “college town”:

  1. I get to tailgate and cheer on the BC Football team each fall (Go eagles!); and
  2. There are tons of free lectures, events, and opportunities for intellectual growth.

This past Wednesday evening, my roommate, Brooke, and I ventured to our first class at Northeastern University. We found our way to West Village F, descended the stairs into the lecture hall, and pulled out our notebooks. I felt a deep nostalgia for that “first day of school” energy. The thing is, we’re not actually matriculated in a program at Northeastern.

The Choice: Election 2016

Each semester, Northeastern University hosts the Myra Kraft Open Classroom Series. It’s free and open to the public, and was established in memory of Myra Kraft. The course this semester is titled “The Choice: Election 2016.” It’s held on Wednesday evenings from 6:00PM-8:00PM in West Village F, Room 20. It started last Wednesday, September 7, and runs through December 7. Even if you missed the first class, you can still come!

The lead faculty is really what sold me on the class. Once I heard it, I thought, “YES! This is exactly how I want to spend my Wednesday evenings.” Here it is:

  • The Honorable Michael Dukakis, distinguished professor of Political Science at Northeastern University, former Governor of Massachusetts, 1988 Democratic nominee for President of the United States, and Brookline resident (For more info about Governor Dukakis, check out my recent post about the health policy forum in Brookline)
  • Christopher Bosso, professor of public policy and director of the Master of Public Policy at Northeastern University

Each week, there’s a panel of professors speaking on a different topic. The first hour of the first class was lecture. The second hour had a Q&A format.

What are the Choices?

As Professor Bosso explained last week,  the class is meant to be an exploration of the upcoming election. He introduced the course with a few guiding questions:

  • Where are we?
  • How did we get here?
  • What are the choices?
  • How do we look at the choices?

Clearly, this election season has been….different. Personally, I spend a lot of time thinking what it all means and what my role is in promoting a healthy democracy. The more I learn, the more questions I have. I hope this class will provide an academic framework to think productively, rather than emotionally, about the political reality today. Through this class, we’ll get to hear from experts in the field, and we’ll all unpack it together.

Up until November 8th, the class will focus on the election, candidates, and issues. After November 8th, we’ll study President Obama’s legacy.

Paths to the Nomination

Each week, there will be a panel of experts. Last Wednesday, we heard from Dr. Rachael Cobb, Associate Professor and Chair of the Suffolk University Department of Government, Dr. William Mayer, Professor of Political Science at Northeastern University, and Governor Dukakis.

First, Dr. Cobb taught us about the Democratic Party’s nomination process and how Hillary Clinton was nominated. Next, Dr. Mayer spoke about the Republican Party’s nomination process and how Donald Trump was nominated. Lastly, Governor Dukakis offered some reflections and observations about the nomination processes and why he thinks Americans overall are unhappy.

Among other topics, we learned about: the history of primaries in the U.S., the value of endorsements, the “invisible primary” (prior to the Iowa Caucus and New Hampshire primary), the history of business people in politics, the consequences of unpopular party leadership, celebrities in politics, bias in press coverage, and candidate field size. Professor Cobb showed us some endorsement data from fivethirtyeight.com and Professor Mayer passed around a handout about, “Who Voted for Whom in the 2016 Republican Primaries.”

The Q&A session was interesting, too. Northeastern students and members of the broader public posed very insightful questions about third party candidates, political rhetoric, and unsuccessful candidates. It’s uplifting to witness other people, particularly young students, caring so much about the political process.

The Semester Ahead

As I’m writing this, I’m getting excited for class #2 tonight: The Economy, Jobs, and Opportunity. I wonder if political scientists are thinking differently about the economy than they were when I was in college a couple years ago. Next week will be about globalization and the age of migration. For a complete schedule and to read more about the topics and professors, check out this page.

I know that not all of my wonderful readers live in Brookline or Boston and can attend this lecture series. But, other colleges have classes that are open to the public as well. Visit your closest university’s course listing or calendar. There may be open lectures about the election. Moreover, there are a plethora of online free courses, through platforms like EdX. For one, Harvard has some free online classes about the election, which you can find here. If you find any good classes near you, let me know so I can share them with other readers.

This class seems very promising. I may be out of college, but I still get to spend my Wednesday evenings in class and my Saturdays watching football. Not too bad!