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What Would Be A Meaningful Vote On The Boston Olympics? Hint: Not A Referendum

Olympic city? Boston's skyline is illuminated at dusk as it reflects off the waters of Boston Harbor. Ahead of a 2017 vote by the International Olympic Committee to select a host city for the 2024 Summer Games, Massachusetts voters will have the chance to make their voices heard in an important vote about paying for the Olympics. Former gubernatorial candidate Evan Falchuk offers a primer to what that vote would mean, why it's different from a referendum, and why voters should care. (Michael Dwyer/AP)
Olympic city? Boston's skyline is illuminated at dusk as it reflects off the waters of Boston Harbor. Ahead of a 2017 vote by the International Olympic Committee to select a host city for the 2024 Summer Games, Massachusetts voters will have the chance to make their voices heard in an important vote about paying for the Olympics. Former gubernatorial candidate Evan Falchuk offers a primer to what that vote would mean, why it's different from a referendum, and why voters should care. (Michael Dwyer/AP)
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As the process of trying to bring the Olympics to Massachusetts continues, there’s a good chance for an historic, statewide vote on the games in November 2016. Many voters don’t yet understand how, exactly, the process for this kind of a vote in Massachusetts works, or even what it means. It is critical that all of us do, given how important the issue of a vote on the Olympics has become.

As the process of trying to bring the Olympics to Massachusetts continues, there’s a good chance for an historic, statewide vote on the games in November 2016.

First, a distinction. Massachusetts Secretary of State William Galvin recently suggested that voters have the opportunity to weigh in on the Olympics bid during voting for the presidential primaries in March 2016. Between now and then, the Legislature would have to come up with a question for voters, which could be something like, “Do you want the Olympics?” Whatever the outcome, a question put before voters in this way would not result in a binding law. The process that I address below would.

Massachusetts law gives voters the power to enact binding laws through an “initiative petition.” (People often use the word “referendum” to describe this process, but a referendum means something else under state law.)

Backers of an initiative petition draft the text of what will become, with enough votes, a binding law. The People's Vote Olympics Committee, for which I serve as chairman, has drafted a law that requires that the Olympics be privately funded: “An Act for a Private Sector Funded Olympics.”

There are several steps involved in getting a proposed law on a ballot. The first is to submit an informal draft to the attorney general’s office for feedback. Doing so can make the next step — formally submitting the draft law to the attorney general — go more smoothly.

To be included on the November 2016 ballot, initiative petitions such as ours must be submitted to the attorney general’s office for formal review by August 2015. The attorney general determines whether the draft law complies with the Massachusetts Constitution; proposals that restrict constitutional rights, such as free speech, are not allowed, for example.

Provided a draft law passes muster with the attorney general, the next step is to collect thousands of signatures that show support for its inclusion on the November 2016 ballot. Beginning in the first week of September 2015, the secretary of state prints those signature forms.

That’s when clipboard-wielding volunteers hit the streets and hit up passers-by for their support. They have until the first Wednesday in December 2015 to collect 64,750 certified signatures. If they succeed, the proposed law is submitted to the Legislature in January 2016.

It is critical that voters know...the distinction between non-binding and binding ballot questions so they can be sure their voices are heard.

The Legislature has four months to enact the proposed law. If it does, there's no need for a ballot initiative vote. In the more likely event that the Legislature doesn't enact the law, however, it is incumbent upon the initiative petition's sponsors and their supporters to collect an additional 10,792 signatures by early July. (The seemingly arbitrary signature numbers are, in fact, based on a percentage of the number of people who voted for governor in the last election.) If and only if those signatures are acquired, the proposed law will appear on the ballot in November 2016.

We are fortunate in Massachusetts to have a way for voters to make binding laws, especially when voters don’t have faith that elected officials will carry out their wishes. Whether taxpayers will pay for the Olympics may be the central challenge facing our people and our economy over the next decade. It is critical that voters know how this process works, as well as the distinction between non-binding and binding ballot questions — so they can be sure their voices are heard.

Related:

Evan Falchuk Twitter Cognoscenti contributor
Evan Falchuk, who ran for Massachusetts governor in 2014, is founder of the state’s new United Independent Party.

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