Nursing Home Ballot Question Derails Amidst Pandemic

Voters fill the booths at Graham and Parks School in Cambridge, as primary elections get under way in Massachusetts. (Robin Lubbock/WBUR)
Voters fill the booths at Graham and Parks School in Cambridge, as primary elections get under way in Massachusetts. (Robin Lubbock/WBUR)

Massachusetts voters are on track to decide this November whether to embrace ranked-choice voting and expand access to automobile digital repair data, but a proposal to increase funding for nursing homes, which were at the center of the COVID-19 crisis, will not appear on the ballot.

Backers of the nursing home question, which would have updated the rates Massachusetts pays to facilities, did not file signatures with Secretary of State William Galvin's office by the 5 p.m. Wednesday deadline.

A spokesman for the campaign told State House News Service last week that it had filed slightly less than 20,000 signatures to local elections officials for certification, but leaders never followed through that initial step, effectively ending their campaign after pushing for months to put the idea before voters.

The Massachusetts Senior Care Association estimated in January — before the COVID-19 pandemic wrought dramatic impacts on nursing homes — that the updated Medicaid funding would cost $272 million in 2021, with half to be reimbursed by the federal government.

In a statement, the group behind the question said their efforts to gather the final round of signatures "were devastated by the effects of COVID-19."

"As COVID-19 inhibited direct contact with Massachusetts voters, it also required that the skilled nursing community focus all its attention and energy on caring for residents and frontline personnel," the Massachusetts Senior Coalition said. "Our thoughts over the past month have been focused on our loved ones and the thousands of dedicated individuals that provide care to them around the clock while at risk to their own personal safety. There is no doubt that this outcome was affected by the unique and difficult circumstances under which we were forced to collect signatures."

The group said it would launch a new push for a 2022 ballot question, arguing that "the need for an increase in nursing home funding has never been clearer."

The nursing home campaign had gathered more than 130,000 signatures to clear an initial threshold last year.

The two other initiative petition campaigns each filed more than the required 13,347 signatures with Secretary of State William Galvin by Wednesday's deadline. While Galvin's office must still review the filings and confirm the signatures, both campaigns are now a single step from the Nov. 3 ballot.

Proponents of the ranked-choice voting question said they submitted more than 25,000 signatures to clear the last hurdle, many of which were collected electronically under a Supreme Judicial Court ruling that allowed the practice as a precaution against COVID transmission.


The proposal would reshape Massachusetts elections starting in 2022 by determining all state and federal races, excluding U.S. president, through a system in which voters choose candidates in order of preference.

Any candidate who receives a majority of first-choice votes would win. If no candidate reached the more than 50% threshold, the candidate with the lowest total in the first round is eliminated, and vote-counters then assign each ballot to whomever the voter selected as their second choice. The process continues until one candidate reaches a majority.

If Massachusetts were to adopt the process, it would become only the second state after Maine to enshrine ranked-choice voting for many state and federal races. Several communities around the country already use a form of the system, including Cambridge here in Massachusetts.

The campaign behind the automobile data question said it submitted 24,000 signatures to Galvin's office for review.

Their proposal to update the state's so-called "right to repair" law would require automobile manufacturers to make telematic data about the vehicle, often used for diagnostics and repair, available to owners and to independent repair shops.

Supporters argue that as cars and trucks add more digital components, automakers are blocking access to important information so they can force owners to seek repairs with the manufacturer.

The milestone reached Wednesday sets up what will likely be four months of vocal campaigning on both questions and a tense fight over the vehicle information proposal, which has already prompted sharp pushback from opponents who warn it will create privacy and cybersecurity risks.

As the right-to-repair campaign filed its paperwork, opponents implied that the question is invalid because proponents used a third-party company to gather electronic signatures that was at the center of a quasi-judicial body's decision to rule a congressional candidate invalid for the ballot.

Under a separate SJC decision predating the ruling for ballot questions, the court said candidates for office could collect electronic signatures rather than the traditional pen-on-paper variety so long as voters either printed out nomination papers, signed them and mailed them back or used a mouse or stylus to sign directly onto the document.

The State Ballot Law Commission, a five-member panel appointed by the governor, decided last week that Republican candidate Helen Brady should not be allowed to run in the 9th Congressional District after the vendor she used, VenueX, stored voter signatures in a separate file rather than collecting them on the "native" documents submitted.

On Wednesday, the Coalition for Safe and Secure Data fighting the ballot question pointed to that decision and said VenueX was also used by petition supporters.

"The national political groups and Beacon Hill lobbyists who are pushing this ballot question cannot even be trusted to safeguard the information of their supporters — let alone the millions of drivers in Massachusetts whose data they are trying to access," Conor Yunits, a spokesperson for the coalition, said. "So now voters will be forced to protect their own information, and vote against a proposal that has been opposed by domestic violence groups, among others, because of the significant personal safety and cybersecurity risks it creates."

Brady, who plans to appeal the decision blocking her from the ballot, told the News Service that 39 other candidates solicited VenueX's signature-gathering services.

Asked about allegations that other campaigns still on track used the same faulty process as Brady, Galvin's office said that it cannot remove a candidate or a question from the ballot unless it is ordered to do so.

Brady was the only candidate to draw a challenge — filed by Leon Branwaithe II — before the State Ballot Law Commission.

A spokesperson for Galvin said the commission does not have proactive authority to investigate other potential violations, and it can only rule on ballot access in response to a challenge.

The deadline for challenges against candidates has passed, while the objection deadline for initiative petitions is July 8. Asked if his group planned to contest the ballot question campaign's signatures, Yunits told the News Service his team is still examining the previous ruling's impact.

A fourth ballot question that would have allowed more food stores to sell beer and wine had been in the mix until last week, but Cumberland Farms, the convenience store giant backing it, dropped the push due to the pandemic's impact.