Deadline whittles ballot question field to three campaigns

Republican-backed proposal to implement voter identification requirements will not appear on the ballot in 2022 after the effort's supporters and campaigns behind 11 other initiative petitions failed to gather enough signatures by a Wednesday deadline.

Collecting the required 80,239 voter signatures proved an insurmountable hurdle for all but three campaigns, eliminating from contention potential ballot questions that would have legalized the sale of consumer fireworks, reversed the state's decades-long ban on happy hour, and imposed new restrictions on hospital CEO compensation.

Proposals to update alcohol licensing limits, rewrite worker status and benefits for app-based drivers, and impose spending limits on dental insurers remain on track to make next year's ballot, though it will not be clear how many signatures each petitioner filed until Secretary of State William Galvin's office counts the submissions in the coming weeks.

The gig economy giants backing the app-based driver question submitted signatures for two different versions of their proposal, keeping both in the mix heading into the next phase of the biennial initiative petition process.

Wendy Wakeman, who worked on the campaign pushing a voter identification ballot question and two others, told the News Service that its supporters "did fail to get enough signatures to make the ballot."

While Wakeman said she is "disappointed" in the outcome, she expressed hope that the focus on the ballot question could push the topic onto the Legislature's agenda.

"Whatever did happen in 2020, it's clear that there are a lot of people who have lost faith in the integrity of the voting system, of the American vote, and it seems as though voter ID is one very simple way to begin to restore confidence in elections," Wakeman said.

Opponents of the question have argued that reported instances of voter fraud are rare and warned that an identification requirement could create an additional obstacle to the ballot box.

"Many older persons who are very good voters have been persuaded or have chosen to give up other forms of ID, such as a driver's license. The idea that they would be precluded from voting is absurd," Galvin, a Democrat and the state's top elections official, said in September.

In July, MassGOP Chair Jim Lyons told supporters the party was "actively building a statewide infrastructure consisting of Republican activists" who would work to put ballot questions dealing with voter ID, newborn care, and critical race theory education before voters next year.

The race education question and the newborn care question, which was filed in response to last year's expansion of state abortion access laws, failed Attorney General Maura Healey's constitutional review.

A judge later issued a preliminary injunction allowing sponsors of the newborn proposal to collect signatures. Wakeman, who also served as an administrator for that campaign, said volunteers collected about 100,000 signatures but only got a bit more than 75,000 certified, falling short of the amount necessary to take another step toward the November 2022 ballot.

Wakeman said Bernadette Lyons, who chairs the Massachusetts Newborn Protection Coalition and is the wife of the MassGOP chair, filed a motion with the court seeking to keep the ballot question alive.

"The hope for that is slim, but the hope is that we're able to continue the conversation with the Supreme Judicial Court over whether or not Maura Healey was justified in her ruling or not," Wakeman said. "We believe that the question was simple and straightforward and that her ruling made it impossible for us to receive the correct amount of signatures."

A third question on which Wakeman worked, which sought to hamstring the state's participation in the Transportation Climate Initiative, is effectively moot and will not advance after Gov. Charlie Baker last month pulled the plug on the plans.

With the field of 2022 ballot questions whittled down to just three topics, voters have a clearer sense of which issues will generate substantial debate — and even more spending — over the next year.

The app-based driver ballot question will build on an intense and expensive campaign cycle in California, where Uber, Lyft and DoorDash last year collectively spent more than $200 million successfully advocating for a similar measure known as Proposition 22.

Those three companies and Instacart are funding the Coalition for Independent Work pushing the Massachusetts ballot question, which would declare all app-based drivers to be independent contractors and not employees — a status that Healey alleges is a violation of existing state law — and offer them access to some new benefits such as a pay floor and paid sick leave.

Officials for the coalition said they filed about 130,000 signatures for each of two versions of the question with local elections officials for certification, though it was unclear Wednesday how many the campaign then submitted to Galvin's office.

Members of the vocal opposition effort, which include U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren and organized labor leaders, argue that the companies are trying to rewrite state law to support their business models at the expense of workers.

Another question on track for the ballot could feature major industry implications. The Massachusetts Package Store Association said it submitted more than 109,000 certified signatures on its question, which would double the number of alcohol licenses a single company could hold but keep a cap in place.

The dental benefits question seeks to apply a profit limit on dental insurance companies similar to those in place on medical insurers, according to Mouhab Rizkallah, chairman of the ballot question committee.

Rizkallah, who would only answer questions via email, said medical insurers must pay at least 88% of the revenue they collect from premiums toward patient care but that a similar requirement does not exist for dental insurance providers, meaning that "patients have to fight for coverage, and often quit due to exhaustion."

The proposal would require dental insurers to spend at least 83% of their dollars on "dental expenses and quality improvements, as opposed to administrative expenses," according to its text.

Rizkallah said the campaign paid more than $500,000 on signature-gatherers and submitted 104,000 validated signatures with Galvin's office.

"We are confident that this protective legislation will pass in Massachusetts, and it will then ricochet across the nation," Rizkallah wrote.

Rizkallah is an orthodontist himself who owns and operates six "The Braces Places" locations in the state. Separate from the ballot question, he is facing a lawsuit from Healey, who alleged in February that Rizkallah kept children in braces for longer than necessary to submit false claims to MassHealth. Healey expanded her complaint in June to include allegations that Rizkallah illegally charged MassHealth patients for missed or canceled appointments.

Asked about the lawsuit and its impact on the ballot question, Rizkallah replied that he has filed and won four lawsuits against MassHealth over their practices and said he retains support from industry experts and leaders.

"I am a change-maker, and I have political enemies, and I have deep political wounds," Rizkallah wrote in an email. "But I live a purpose-driven life...I prefer deep political wounds in exchange for healthcare impacts for humanity, rather than personal comfort and irrelevance."

Both other campaigns that submitted signatures to Galvin's office used paid signature-gatherers. MPSA Executive Director Robert Mellion said his group hired Signature Drive at a rate of $5 to $8 per signature, while the Coalition for Independent Work did not provide details about the paid vendor it used.

Galvin's staff will process submissions in the coming weeks and count signatures. Later this month, officials will publish a list of which met the requirement of at least 80,239 signatures and transmit the petitions to the Legislature.

Lawmakers will then have until May 4, 2022 to act on each of the proposed laws. If they decline to do so, each campaign will need to collect another 13,374 signatures by July 6, 2022 to put the question before voters that November.



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