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Tuesday, October 27, 2020

Ballot Questions

Jump directly to CLT's Commentary on the News

Chip Ford's CLT Commentary

There seems to be a lot of last minute interest in and confusion about the two questions on the 2020 ballot.  I've done some research to provide you with an overview of what you'll be asked to vote on, so that you can vote informed.

Chip Ford
Executive Director

Tuesday, September 29, 2020
Making sense of Question 1, the return of the Massachusetts right-to-repair debate
Supporters say the ballot measure would simply level the playing field for independent car shops.
Skeptics say it could have unintended consequences.

By Nik DeCosta-Klipa, Staff

Most Americans aren’t sure they could change a flat tire or their car’s oil, according to some surveys.

And yet, this election, voters in Massachusetts are being asked to decide a hugely expensive debate over the seemingly labyrinthine subject of vehicle telematics and data access.

“This is a hard topic for federal safety regulators who understand the intricacies of vehicle design development,” much less the average voter, says Bryan Reimer, a research scientist at the MIT Center for Transportation and Logistics.

But supporters of Question 1 say the 2020 ballot measure simply comes down to creating a level playing field for third-party repair and car part shops, who fear they are being boxed out by automakers.

“When you’re on the ‘no’ side of the campaign, your job is to complicate things,” Tommy Hickey, the director of the Yes on 1 coalition, said in an interview.

If passed, Question 1 would update a “right-to-repair” state law signed in 2013, which mandated that owners and independent repair shops had the same access as carmakers to the vehicle computer information used to diagnose problems by plugging a handheld code reader into a physical port in the vehicle.

The 2013 law came after Massachusetts voters overwhelmingly approved a similar 2012 right-to-repair ballot measure, which had to be reconciled with a previous law signed by Gov. Deval Patrick that summer. It also ultimately resulted in automakers agreeing to a deal in 2014 to make the Massachusetts law the national standard.

However, the law specifically excluded access to what is known as “telematics,” the diagnostic and repair information that more and more newer cars can send wirelessly straight to the dealer. Without that access, independent repair shops say they’re at an extreme disadvantage.

Question 1 would require that car owners can access and share telematics data with independent repair shops. And while opponents argue it could result in unintended consequences, repair shops say they’re currently the ones desperately in need of a fix.

“This is a competitive market,” Hickey said. “And I think we all know what happens in competitive markets if you don’t have up-to-date technology, the best equipment, the best ways of fixing cars. You lose. This could be the evisceration of the aftermarket.”

What exactly is telematics?

The ballot question defines telematics as “any system in a motor vehicle that collects information generated by the operation of the vehicle and transmits such information … utilizing wireless communications to a remote receiving point where it is stored.”

In other words, it’s like using wireless headphones instead of plug-in headphones. But instead of music, the car can transmit information detected by vehicle sensors back to the dealer — from worn-out brake pads to tire pressure to a loose piston pin and other vehicle software components.

“Cars are as much software as they are mechanical hardware,” Reimer said.

Last year, car industry researchers estimated that more than half of the new cars sold in 2018 in North America included telematics services. Hickey says that 90 percent of 2021 models will have the capability, though the rates vary by the manufacturer.

What would the question do?

If passed, Question 1 would require manufacturers to create a platform that vehicle owners could access through a mobile application to get their car’s “mechanical” telematics data. The ballot question defines “mechanical data” as anything “used for or otherwise related to the diagnosis, repair or maintenance of the vehicle.”

Beginning with the model year 2022, any car smaller than a mini-bus that uses telematics would need to give owners access to that data through the standardized platform.

The ballot question would also allow owners to give independent repair shops direct access to their car’s telematics data — either permanently or for a limited amount of time in order for them to make the repair. However, the thought behind the initiative — which has received millions from independent chains like AutoZone, Advance Auto Parts, and O’Reilly Auto Parts —  is that many car owners may choose the first option.

“To this day, I have no idea what’s going on with my car, so if I had an independent repairer or dealer that I trusted, I would like them to have that information,” Hickey said, noting that others might want to limit access to as little as an hour.

That access would also give shops the same ability as dealers to send remote commands for things like downloading software updates or testing certain in-vehicle functions.

Why is it controversial?

Opponents have raised more than $25 million to defeat Question 1, largely in lump-sum multi-million-dollar donations from major carmakers including Ford, General Motors, Toyota, and Honda.

However, some experts say there are valid concerns about Question 1 that go beyond the financial interests and dealers’ desire to maintain exclusive access to data.

“The ballot initiative creates a series of unintended consequences, because of the timeline and the vague wording of several aspects,” Reimer said. “And unintended consequences can lead to low-probability, high-impact events.”

According to Reimer, automakers are already in the midst of producing 2022 models and requiring them to open up wireless data access at this stage could open up potential cyber-vulnerabilities and possibilities for remote tampering.

“You’re talking about electronic systems that all the manufacturers have been trying for a decade to case harden more,” he said, adding that requiring manufacturers to create an open-access platform on an “accelerated” timeline increases the chances of flaws.

While experts recently told The Boston Globe that TV ads that have flooded local airwaves — raising concerns about stalkers and other predatory actors — are largely sensationalized and based on a differently worded 2014 bill in California. They also said the fears of malicious attacks are not entirely unfounded, even if improbable.

In a July letter to Massachusetts legislators, James Owens, the deputy administrator for the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, raised concerns about Question 1, given the “incredible amount of danger” posed by cyberattacks on one or more moving vehicles.

“The ballot initiative requires vehicle manufacturers to redesign their vehicles in a manner that necessarily introduces cybersecurity risks, and to do so in a timeframe that makes design, proof, and implementation of any meaningful countermeasure effectively impossible,” Owens wrote.

Owns also said that the wording of Question 1 could render several important techniques — “logical and physical isolation of vehicle control systems from external connections, and controlling access to firmware that executes vehicle functions” — for hardening vehicle systems against such attacks “impossible.”

Still, the Auto Care Association, which represents aftermarket shops, has argued that such cybersecurity concerns are “false and presented to detract from what is at risk for the vehicle manufacturers” in the right-to-repair battle: their ability to make money off vehicle data.

Nearly a dozen cybersecurity experts also denounced the “scare tactics” in a Boston Herald op-ed last week, arguing that Question 1 would “in no way” increase the risk of hacking or other security threats. Additionally, the group, SecuRepairs, said the current model, in which dealers maintain their grip on telematics, presents its own concerns.

“There is one thing the auto industry’s scare-mercials have right: Consumers should be worried about the reams of data that automakers collect from our connected vehicles,” they wrote in the op-ed. “Modern Internet connected cars have access to everything from personal contact data shared from a driver’s mobile phone to video feeds from in-car cameras to the vehicle’s GPS data. Privacy and consumer advocates ranging from the ACLU to Consumer Reports warn that this galaxy of in-vehicle sensors pose acute privacy and civil liberties risks.”

Hickey also stresses that — unlike the failed California bill — Question 1 would only apply to mechanical data, and not personal location data or personal information (though the two sides dispute how broadly mechanical data is defined).

“They’re already collecting this information; all we’re asking is that it goes directly to the owner of the car,” he said.

What happens if Question 1 passes?

One poll last month found that voters sided with the Yes-on-1 side by a nearly 2-to-1 margin, and the 2012 ballot measure also passed by a historically high margin. Hickey says that if the manufacturers’ security concerns were serious, they would have negotiated a compromise with repair shops, like they did in 2012 (though he also noted that the COVID-19 pandemic derailed much of the legislative agenda).

Hickey suggested the Yes on 2 side was still open to legislative tweaks if the question passes.

“There could be something,” he said. “But again, they have not come to the table, so we plan on passing this ballot initiative as is.”

As cars become more and more computerized, Reimer says there needs be a larger policy debate to set ground rules for what types of repairs are reasonable for independent repair shops and what should be left to the manufacturer. To return to the smartphone allegory, he says going to a third-party repair shop to fix a broken screen was reasonable.

“Would you ever consider a third-party application to start messing with what iOS functionality should change?” he said. “If there’s a fundamental problem, we walk into the Apple Store to the authorized dealer.”

Reimer says it’s an issue that needs federal action at some point, if not an updated version of the national agreement among automakers and repair shops in 2014.

“We cannot have 50 states running in 50 different directions,” he said. “We need federal leadership, not state initiatives.”

However, there’s not been much progress on that front — a point on which the two sides agree.

“I don’t know if the federal government can even sign [COVID-19 relief] money for cities and towns, let alone a fix for car manufacturers withholding from owners and independent repair shops,” Hickey said. “But I definitely think there should be a larger conversation.”


The Boston Globe
Monday, October 26, 2020
Who are the out-of-state billionaires backing ranked-choice voting in Massachusetts?
By Matt Stout, Globe Staff

In April of last year, John Arnold warned in a Houston Chronicle op-ed that democracy at the local level was in “crisis.” A former energy hedge fund manager and Enron trader turned philanthropist, Arnold argued that a ranked-choice voting system, in place of runoff or two-round elections, could help spur more competition and, perhaps, voter interest.

“Houston,” the billionaire wrote of his hometown, “should aim to lead the way in bringing it to Texas.”

Eighteen months later, it’s voters in Massachusetts and Alaska — not Texas — weighing whether to push into a new frontier of voting this November. It’s also still Arnold helping drive the case for why they should.

Arnold and his wife, Laura, are among a network of wealthy out-of-state donors helping fuel ranked-choice voting ballot initiatives in Massachusetts and beyond, by seeding local committees with millions of dollars and, in the Arnolds’ case, buttressing research on the system’s potential impact.

Through their Action Now Initiative, the Arnolds have committed nearly $3.4 million in support of the Massachusetts ballot proposal, known as Question 2. Kathryn Murdoch, the daughter-in-law of Rupert Murdoch, has personally given $2.5 million since early September. The Denver-based nonpartisan group Unite America, which she co-chairs and has seeded with millions toward supporting democratic reforms, has contributed $445,000.

Neither the Arnolds nor Murdoch agreed to interview requests sent through the respective organizations they lead, which instead offered on-the-record statements.

In all, of the $9.8 million the Yes on 2 committee has raised, just 19 donors — 12 of whom hail from outside Massachusetts — gave a combined $9.2 million. Donors outside the state make up 84 percent of all the cash it has reportedly collected.

It’s a similar story elsewhere. In Alaska, where voters are weighing a three-pronged initiative, including using ranked-choice voting in general elections, the Arnolds and Unite America have given a combined $4.6 million, the vast majority of what Alaskans for Better Elections has raised.

The Arnolds also put more than $1 million behind two separate, and successful, ranked-choice voting efforts in Maine, as well as $1 million more in the successful effort last year to adopt it in New York City, making Action Now Initiative its leading donor.

That financial heft underscores the intense interest, and faith, that national advocates say they have in the system, as well as the role that states, including Massachusetts, could play as a bellwether in its adoption on a wider scale. Fewer than 20 cities or counties currently use ranked-choice voting, and Maine is the only state where it is deployed for statewide and federal races.

“We’re a very important bell cow,” said Michael Porter, a Harvard University professor, Brookline resident, and, with $450,000 in donations, Yes on 2′s biggest in-state contributor. “I think Massachusetts will be one of the next rounds of states that are serious and are putting this measure in place because we believe that political innovation has to happen in America.”

But the spigot of out-of-state funding has also drawn skepticism from ranked-voice voting’s critics, who have used the heavy reliance on national cash as a key plank in their opposition to something that would have a profound effect on Massachusetts elections.

It remains to be seen whether that sways voters’ feelings for the ballot question, which has run even or ahead in scant public polling.

“Money flows around the political system all the time. This thing will either win or lose on the strength or weakness of the arguments, and whether, more broadly, people view it as a solution to a problem that exists,” said Jack Santucci, an assistant teaching professor at Drexel University who has researched ranked-choice voting. “You can’t create demand for this stuff. And you can’t purchase demand for it.”

As proposed in Question 2 on Massachusetts' ballot, ranked-choice elections would give voters the option of ranking candidates for an office in order of preference. If a candidate gets more than 50 percent of the first-choice votes, he or she is the winner. But if no one does, the candidate with the fewest votes is stripped away and those voters are reallocated to the remaining candidates based on their second choice.

The process goes for as many rounds as it takes for one candidate to earn a majority of votes.

If approved, the new system would be used for primary and general elections for statewide offices — governor, attorney general, and more — as well as congressional, state legislative, and district attorney offices starting in 2022. It would not apply to presidential elections or municipal elections.

The Arnolds’ group began seeding such efforts beginning in Maine, struck by what it has described as paralysis in lawmaking and frustration with the status quo.

Sam Mar, a vice president at Arnold Ventures, said that in Massachusetts and elsewhere, the Arnolds donated money because there already was a base of local support and volunteers behind the ranked-choice initiatives.

“Ultimately we’re all part of this country, and we should all be pitching in to help voters strengthen our democracy, regardless of where we live,” Mar said.

That has included pumping money into political reform research, including $500,000 to the think tank New America. (Santucci, the Drexel professor, is among the researchers who have a contract with New America, under which he is studying whether ranked-choice voting promotes more women and people of color to run.)

The Arnolds also aren’t strangers to Massachusetts’ political landscape.

In 2016, John Arnold gave $250,000 to an unsuccessful effort to lift the cap on charter schools in Massachusetts, and they poured more than $500,000 into a PAC that helped bolster Governor Charlie Baker’s reelection in 2018. Last year, Patients For Affordable Drugs Now, a bipartisan political group that the couple has funded, put hundreds of thousands of dollars into an ad campaign backing a Baker proposal to control prescription drug costs.

Those helping lead the ranked-choice ballot initiative argue that despite the out-of-state help, the push is rooted in local support. Evan Falchuk, Yes on 2′s chairman, said he first joined the effort in 2017, and the ballot question has the backing of prominent Massachusetts officials, from former governors Deval Patrick and William F. Weld to Senators Elizabeth Warren and Edward J. Markey, among others.

Plus, the committee directly solicited the out-of-state financial help, said Mike Zarren, the assistant general manager of the Boston Celtics and a Yes on 2 board member.

“We reached out to a bunch of democracy activists. They all didn’t find us,” Zarren said, arguing that the outside donors have no financial incentive to see ranked-choice voting pass. “If you care about this nationally, you sort of have to do it state by state.“

Still, the zip code of the donors has provided a consistent rallying cry for its opponents.

“Why are they so interested in Massachusetts voting system?” said Anthony Amore, a former Republican candidate for secretary of state who has acted as an informal volunteer spokesman for the committee opposed to Question 2. Asked what he believes the motivation is, Amore said he is hesitant to speculate.

“It should give people pause, as it should for any political candidate or ballot initiative, of who is funding it,” he said.

Some Democrats, too, have preached wariness. Kevin Connor, an aide to state Senator Harriette L. Chandler, warned in a Commonwealth Magazine op-ed that Murdoch’s endorsement of ranked-choice voting as a way to help alleviate extreme partisanship “erases the impact of progressive champions like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Ayanna Pressley.”

He added that “for Massachusetts progressives fighting the status quo, a voting regime that drags election results to the center should be viewed with skepticism — especially when moneyed interests are so supportive.”

Nick Troiano, the executive director of Unite America, which Murdoch co-chairs, said in a statement that it is backing ranked-choice in Massachusetts because it can give voters “more power in their elections and more choice on their ballot.”

The narrative isn’t limited to Massachusetts. In right-leaning Alaska, the state Republican Party, as well as groups such as Planned Parenthood, oppose the ballot measure there, which also would create so-called open, or nonpartisan, primaries.

Alaskans, known for their libertarian and independent streak, often bristle at the specter of outside influences, said Alex Hirsch, an associate professor of political science at the University of Alaska Fairbanks.

“If outside money gets identified as an influential force,” Hirsch said, “that often backfires.”

A Primer on the Two 2020 Massachusetts Ballot Questions
Voters will consider car owners’ “right to repair” and ranked-choice voting

NOTE: In accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. section 107, this material is distributed without profit or payment to those who have expressed a prior interest in receiving this information for non-profit research and educational purposes only. For more information go to:

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