Talking with Voters in Davis Square

This post was written by Ian Clarke, the Tufts University fellow working on the Citizens’ Initiative Review project team this summer. As part of Ian's work, he'll be preparing a weekly blog exploring topics related to CIR and the initiative and referendum system in Massachusetts. June 10, 2016.

Given the CIR‘s core goal – to help voters better understand confusing ballot questions – it seemed prudent for me to spend some time hearing from voters themselves. I elected to hop on the Red Line train to Davis Square in Somerville, the nearest T-stop to my beloved Tufts University. Since the extension of the Red Line to the square in the 1980s, the area has become a bustling hub – host to restaurants and other businesses, along with the occasional flea market or activist street band festival.

When I walked out of the T-Stop and across the busy crosswalk on Holland Avenue, a good deal of people were scattered across the brick-cobbled triangle of open space outside J.P. Licks’ Ice Cream. 

I soon found myself sitting on a bench next to Rick Beaulieu, a Catholic priest taking a break from walking his dog, Lily. Beaulieu, whose primary residence is in Marblehead, and I started a twenty-minute long conversation about everything from recyclable bottles to the merits of representative government.

“The first time I voted in Massachusetts was probably in 1970” he told me when I asked. As we switched to the topic of ballot questions, he was unabashedly honest about his current awareness of the measures that he would be asked to vote on in five months.

“I don’t even know how many are on there. When the election gets closer, I’ll probably put the time in to learn more about them.”

Beaulieu said he believed that ignorance of the ballot measures themselves was likely universal.

Somerville resident Grace Peters, who I talked to shortly after, had a similar outlook.

“I’m almost overwhelmed by the amount of junk that I get about the primaries and the national things. Some of its helpful, but sometimes it’s enough already. I’m embarrassed to say that I’m not very aware at all about what the state propositions are for legislative amendments,” she said. “I frankly don't know what can be done to improve access to information.”

Peters told me the most important thing when trying to make sense of ballot questions is reliable information from a trusted source. For her, this means an explanatory pamphlet from the League of Women Voters that she receives in the days prior to Election Day.

A friend of Peters, who originally did not want to be interviewed for this post but peppered in a few comments anyway, chimed in here. “I’m more likely to hear about state issues through my church, which is a social activist kind of church… so there are certain people who are very active in these things and pull the rest of us along.”

Anthony Alleyne, who works in prosthetics at a Boston-area Veterans Affairs Hospital, derives some confidence from the nature of his work, which brings him into contact with countless patients.

“I hear a lot of older people talking constantly and I know their mindset. I know what they believe. As a younger person, I go online, I read stuff - I’m kinda more out there, so I know both sides. I can make a more valid opinion, I sort of see both sides,” he told me.

As far as confronting the possibility that many voters lack a reliable source of information as they are asked to pick a side on initiatives, universal concern was expressed in my conversations. The activity of interest groups was often described as a threat.

“The people who have a huge amount of money that can be spent on advertising in favor of a bill and really flood people that don't have any feelings or aren't very aware of stuff that’s going on and really overwhelm them with scare tactics and fear,” Peters told me. “I’m going back to the bottle bill, which is ancient history now for most people. There was all this advertisement that it was going to hurt businesses and it was going to be a huge drag and on and on. There was a huge amount of money that was spent against that [initial bill].”

Beaulieu also referenced the Bottle Bill in making this case. “There’s a huge impact. Like the bottle bill - the soda companies, the beer companies, grocery stores spent millions to get that defeated. The polling went from wide support to a bad loss overnight.”

I asked Alleyne if he sees many advertisements surrounding the ballot questions most voters aren’t well-versed on. “Oh yeah, all the time,” he answered. “I don’t watch a lot of TV but you see it all the time - especially if you watch something like Fox or CNN.”

Especially considering the sheer number of advertisements, Alleyne told me that he worries that “voters can be swayed very easily,”

Like Alleyne, everyone I spoke with had concerns with the ballot question system. They all wanted to see reform, to try to reform the ballot initiative into a more representative and less easily manipulated system. They all felt that this required voters to have access to better and fairer sources of information. None were sure what that would look like just yet, but this summer we will see if it looks like the Citizens’ Initiative Review.