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May 17, 2024

Ballot question campaigns heat up as opponents file complaints

A look at the Massachusetts State House on a sunny day, it's golden dome gleaming in the sunlight. Courtesy | Flickr/Massachusetts Office of Travel and Tourism The Massachusetts State House

A pair of potential statewide ballot questions face new complications after opponents complained about one's financial disclosure and the other's official title and summary.

The Massachusetts Fiscal Alliance, a right-leaning watchdog group, filed a complaint with campaign finance regulators over a new advertisement funded by the campaign seeking unionization rights for Uber and Lyft drivers.

MassFiscal alleged that the United for Justice committee backing the ballot question appended a financial disclaimer to the ad with font too small to be easily legible.

State law requires certain political communications to disclose the top five contributors to whichever entity purchased the ad, and regulations call for those disclaimers to be "of a size and contrasting color that will be legible to the average viewer."

"Here, United for Justice provides the Top Contributor Disclaimer in a miniscule font, which is far smaller than is typically used for mandatory OCPF disclaimers in television and video advertisements," MassFiscal spokesperson Paul Craney wrote in the complaint. "Even when paused, the font is so small that it is very difficult to read on many screens and devices, and it is nearly impossible to read while the advertisement is playing."

The 30-second ad, which launched Monday on channels such as ESPN and CNN with a six-figure purchase, adds a disclaimer at the bottom of the screen for the final three seconds.

It lists three contributors: Service Employees International Union, Local 32BJ, and Service Employees International Union again. OCPF records show all of the $1.03 million the committee has raised so far came from SEIU's headquarters in Washington, D.C. or the Local 32BJ branch with no other donors so far.

Craney in his complaint compared a copy of the unionization ad on YouTube -- which also includes its disclaimer in the video description -- to one from a different campaign funded by Uber, Lyft, DoorDash and Instacart, which appears to use larger font that stretches higher up the screen for its disclosure.

Frank Soults, a spokesperson for the union-backed United for Justice campaign, said Thursday that the group accurately disclosed its major funders both in its digital ad an on its website. He added that the Fiscal Alliance "attacks us because it supports Uber and Lyft's campaign to deny rights and decent pay and working conditions for those drivers."

"We will review and address their specific complaint about type size, but what's truly small is the companies' commitment to the drivers who have created the wealth they are now deploying to stop those drivers from standing up for themselves and their families," Soults said in a statement.

The OCPF complaint is not the first time the Fiscal Alliance has challenged the union-backed ballot question. The related Fiscal Alliance Foundation asked the state's highest court to toss the measure from contention, alleging that it improperly combines too many topics.

On another campaign front, opponents of a measure that would eliminate the use of MCAS as a graduation requirement called Thursday for the Supreme Judicial Court to change the title and description of the measure.

The question's title is "Elimination of MCAS as High School Graduation Requirement," according to a copy of the state register plaintiffs included in their complaint. Both of the summaries also make explicit reference to MCAS.

"A YES VOTE would eliminate the requirement that students pass the Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System (MCAS) in order to graduate high school but still require students to complete coursework that meets state standards," one summary reads, followed by, "A NO VOTE would make no change in the law relative to the requirement that a student pass the MCAS in order to graduate high school."

The Committee to Preserve Educational Standards for K-12 Students, a coalition of parents, educators and business groups fighting the question, alleged that the title and one-sentence statements of potential effects are misleading because they do not make clear that the question "also precludes the use of any objective, uniform state test as a graduation requirement."

"The misleading language in both the ballot question's title and statements informing voters about the impact of the proposal does a disservice to voters by presenting an incomplete description of the question," said John Schneider, who chairs the opposition committee. "Based on the current language, voters will think a Yes vote would eliminate the MCAS test as a graduation requirement when they would, in fact, be prohibiting the use of any statewide assessment. We ask the Supreme Judicial Court to revise the language so it is accurate."

Plaintiffs asked the court to order Attorney General Andrea Campbell and Secretary of State William Galvin to change the word "MCAS" to "uniform statewide assessment" in the question's title and summaries of what yes and no votes would do.

Proponents of the measure, including the Massachusetts Teachers Association, argue that MCAS exams have created unnecessary stress and are not as successful at assessing student performance as more individualized measurements.

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