“We’ve been told over and over that ordinary people in Lowell don’t really care about combating climate change. … Our elected representatives can’t tell us that anymore.”
Before as well as after the Nov 3 election, Ballot Questions 1 and 2 received significant attention in the media, in some cases on top of heaps of advertising paid for by stakeholders. But while the Right to Repair and Ranked Choice Voting initiatives were deeply debated and publicly contemplated, questions 3 and 4 only appeared in some Massachusetts House districts. But while they were for nonbinding measures, the issues and results nevertheless offer insights into local politics and priorities.
Question 3 asked voters: “Shall the representative for this district be instructed to vote in favor of legislation that would require Massachusetts to achieve 100% renewable energy use within the next two decades, starting immediately and making significant progress within the first five years while protecting impacted workers and businesses?”
Nineteen districts saw the renewable energy prompt on their ballot, predominantly in Middlesex and Suffolk. Unofficial results available at the time of this writing show that 83% of voters approved the measure, a landslide. Lowell activist Stephen Malagodi helped campaign for Question 3 and said, “We’ve been told over and over that ordinary people in Lowell don’t really care about combating climate change. … Our elected representatives can’t tell us that anymore.”
Of course, what purpose is environmental accountability for legislators if there is no accountability in government? At least, that’s what 350 Mass and Act on Mass, the organizers of the initiatives, asked themselves. Ergo, Question 4 called for transparency among representatives. Specifically, voters were asked: “Shall the representative for this district be instructed to vote in favor of changes to the Legislature’s rules that would make the results of all votes in Legislative committees publicly available on the Legislature’s website?”
Cabell Eames, the legislative manager for 350 Mass, said: “There’s so much that we don’t know that goes into our voting system. … Some of the [representatives] are very transparent and forthcoming with the information, and some of them are not.”
In the 16 districts across the state that voted on Question 4, the prompt passed with 91% in support. Matt Miller, co-founder of Act on Mass, said, “There’s a clear mandate for greater transparency, and we’ll be working hard to ensure the legislators listen to this clear message.”
Still, unlike binding ballot questions like Right to Repair, there is a significant caveat to the potential impact of Questions 3 and 4. Eames describes their function as more of a push to local government: “It’s more persuasion. … It’s not a mandate. … It serves as a data point … that’s never going to go away.” The legislative manager added that the supermajority that the questions passed with makes it difficult for lawmakers to argue that such actions would buck the wishes of their constituents.
Forced to collect signatures during a pandemic, 350 Mass and Act on Mass faced a particular challenge getting 3 and 4 on the ballot. Eames told the Dig that in April, when the organization filed the petition to add the renewable energy and transparency questions, the quarantine made them rethink their strategy.
“We started off by doing phonebanks into districts and actually mailing [the petition] to people and having them mail it back to us,” Eames said. “We just didn’t know what else to do.”
Some activists collected some signatures in person; at the beginning of their effort, online signatures were not legally allowed to be counted. Thanks to lawsuits stemming from the statewide ballot initiatives, however, 10 days before the deadline the environmental groups finally got the edge they needed to reach enough signers.
“Because they won, we decided to use the same thing,” Eames said of the digital platform for signature gathering.
With those short-term victories behind them, the groups are back to facing the goliath of state government.
“Historically, [the] Massachusetts State House has been a very corrupt place,” Eames said. By focusing on transparency, 350 Mass and Act on Mass hope to push renewable energy forward. “If we don’t get these emissions out of the atmosphere, we’re going to continue to cook. … [We must be] decarbonizing the systems that we have and creating jobs.”
Justin Brown, a member of 350 Mass who teaches in Brookline, campaigned for Questions 2 and 3.
“In talking with voters it was clear how much they cared about a clean future and more transparent government,” Brown said. “They eagerly signed.
“Additionally, most seemed stunned to learn that committee votes [in the Massachusetts legislature] were not required to be public.”