In an exercise of their democratic freedoms under state law, Massachusetts residents successfully petitioned to have three distinct initiatives posed to voters on November 6th. Of those three ballot questions, two received widespread media attention: (1) the legalization of medical marijuana, which ultimately passed by a wide margin, and (2) the legalization of prescribing medication to end life, which, after passionate debate, was defeated by a relatively small percentage of voters. Meanwhile, results for the third ballot initiative regarding the availability of motor vehicle repair information for independent repair shop owners, more commonly referred to as the “right to repair,” were not so much as acknowledged by major news organizations. However, after receiving strong voter support on Election Day, the right to repair initiative has begun to gain some media attention.
On August 8th, over a month after the deadline was met to have the right to repair initiative placed on the ballot, Governor Deval Patrick signed Bill H.4362 into law. This act “protecting motor vehicle owners and small businesses in repairing motor vehicles” included variations of many of the provisions within the right to repair initiative, all of which had been thoroughly debated between legislators and leaders in the automobile industry; and subsequently were passed with unanimous bipartisan support. Proud of their accomplishments, legislators urged voters to ignore the right to repair ballot question in order to avoid having to reconcile Bill H.4362 with the statute drafted by the citizens.
Unfortunately for the legislature, after a short period of enjoying popular support for its plea to ignore the right to repair ballot question, local AAA chapters publically urged voters to vote “yes” for the ballot initiative, citing major discrepancies between the law as passed and the initiative on the ballot. AAA of Southern New England, one of the local chapters that came out in support of the ballot initiative, accounted for the short period of popular support by citing that citizens expected the bill as passed to closely resemble the ballot initiative. However, when the bill text was made publically available, it became clear that the compromised measure passed by the legislature was far more restrictive.
As it played out at the ballot boxes, not only did approximately 85% of voters who participated in the 2012 election cast their vote on the issue of right to repair, but the ballot measure was accepted by the widest margin in the history of the Commonwealth.
The questions that remain with regards to reconciling Bill H.4362 with the right to repair initiative are indeed difficult questions to answer. On one hand, it seems as though legislators are stuck between the proverbial “rock,” in this case the automobile industry, and “hard place,” or their constituents. On the other hand, ballot initiatives like this one primarily exist to provide a method for citizens to directly influence their government. What would it mean for the cause of direct democracy if the will of the majority of voters could be superseded by the agendas of the elected few?
The ballot initiative is set to become law on January 1, 2013. Staffers of the Joint Committee on Consumer Protection and Professional Licensure, in which Bill H.4362 originated, hold that they will not be sure how legislators will address the issue until they return for formal sessions. Unfortunately, the legislature does not reconvene until after January 1, 2013.