Cutting through the Confusion

Student worked to make ballot questions more voter-friendly during summer fellowship at State House

Updated September 16, 2016

While others focus on the presidential election, Suffolk graduate student Elainy Mata, ’17, believes it’s local polling that will have the greatest immediate impact on the lives of Massachusetts residents. That’s especially true, she says, when it comes to ballot questions, which she calls “our one chance to help change legislation.”

Mata, who is working toward her master’s in political science, spent the summer as part of a Massachusetts Citizens Initiative Review pilot program designed to make ballot questions more voter-friendly. In the spring, she received a full-time summer fellowship, and interned at the State House. For discussion, the program chose ballot question #4, which weighs the legalization, regulation and taxation of marijuana. A “yes” vote would legalize marijuana for recreational use.

“I think because it was a pilot program we were all excited to jump in with ideas, and it was a nice learning process of figuring out how something like this works, how we approach it, how we make people comfortable,” Mata said. “It was nice learning how you do this sort of thing that’s going to affect the way people think about this question.”

Citizens Initiative Review does not take a stand for either side but presents all available information in a manner that allows voters to make an informed decision when considering ballot initiatives. There are four on this year’s state ballot.

The program included a random selection of citizens as well as experts on both sides of the issues. Mata, who is fascinated by “voter behavior and voter perception,” found the experts’ presentations and voters’ questions enlightening.

“I think the main tactic everyone used to present both sides of this question was the emotional aspect: ‘How would you feel like this was passed? ‘How would you feel if your kids were part of this?” It was amazing to see these people present,” she said. “It was interesting watching them try to sway voters a certain way, and also seeing how the voters reacted.”

May 5, 2016

Democracy, Elainy Mata ’17 believes, should not be difficult.

That’s what the Suffolk University government major was thinking when pamphlets purported to explain two 2014 Massachusetts ballot questions—one on expansion of the state’s bottle deposit law and the other on whether to repeal an earlier law that allowed casinos to operate within the state.

When yes means no

“There were different arguments for and against it, but it was still a yes-means-no, no-means-yes sort of situation,” Mata recalls. That was literally the case with the casinos question: a “yes” vote meant no casinos, while a “no” vote would allow for the licensing of resort-style casinos.

“Even with an explanation, I still didn’t know what was going on,” Mata says. “Why is it so hard to say clearly what a [ballot question] means?”

So when Mata, a senior, heard about the Massachusetts Citizens Initiative Review, which seeks to make ballot questions voter-friendly, she knew it was something that could feed her passion for a more accessible democratic process.

This year, the group offered full-time summer fellowships to undergraduates and graduate students. Mata applied and will start her internship at the State House in June.

“In terms of direct democracy, [a ballot question] is our chance to change legislation, so why are they so difficult to understand?” Mata asks. “It seems like if they want a certain bill to pass, the language will be clearer, and if not, it’ll be more difficult. That’s something I hope to understand. Like the upcoming marijuana [legalization] bill – will the language be more difficult if lobbyists don’t want it to pass? So I’m excited to see what process goes into this and what their end game is.”

Mata, 22, originally intended to study psychology, but her mother encouraged her to try political science after hearing her daughter’s boisterous comments while watching CNN. In her freshman year at Suffolk, she struggled to find a focus area of study, but that quickly changed as a sophomore, she says.

Promoting voter rights

“When I took my Elections and Voting class, I learned how much inequality there is in terms of voting, how weak mobilization of voters can be, and how wishy-washy things are in interpreting language in terms of election laws,” Mata says. “Something we are given the right to do is probably one of the most difficult processes. It’s something that should be so simple, but they make it so hard, and it doesn’t need to be.”

Mata already has had an up-close look at the voting process. In her first year at Suffolk, as part of an extended classroom requirement for her Introduction to American Democracy course, she served as a poll worker in Boston. She found the experience so compelling that she continued to do serve beyond the required time frame.

“I loved it and met wonderful people, but what really motivated me to do it is that there were errors in the system, and I wanted to continue to observe them and see if there was any change at all,” she says. “It also means a lot to be there to help make the voting process a little easier for some voters, whether it’s their first time or they’re having difficulties reading the ballot or ballot questions.”

With the upcoming presidential election, Mata is especially concerned that difficulties in the voting process could deter potential voters, especially her fellow millennials, in November.

“I’ve committed my time to telling everyone, ‘Listen, if you have any questions about this election, the candidates, how to register to vote, how to do absentee, I will sit down with you and help you,’” she says. “This is an election where we have the power to make change. I’m passionate about the mobilization of young voters and college students to get involved.”

For Mata, who grew up in Peabody, Lynn, and Salem, Massachusetts, people being disenfranchised cuts deep. As a Hispanic, she says has witnessed both subtle and blatant acts of discrimination against people of color. “Seeing how my mom gets treated during a job search, or in the workplace, where certain ethnicities lie in terms of job search and placement, and understanding what this election is about – that motivates me to be more active; I want to make sure my community, the Hispanic/Latino community, understands more.”

A wealth of opportunity

Mata, who also has a minor in communication, will stay at Suffolk after completing undergraduate studies to earn an MS in Political Science with a concentration in professional politics, “a more concentrated track than political science, with more legislation and lobbying, policy writing, and campaign financing,” she says.

She’s still deciding what she wants to do beyond Suffolk. Politics, broadcast journalism (she was an student reporter for NECN’s Suffolk in the City), and theater are all possibilities. She was featured as Mimi in the Suffolk Theatre Department’s recent production of RENT.

“I’m not getting rid of politics and I’m not getting rid of theater. Theater has really influenced me in how I communicate with other people, but I also love storytelling in terms of broadcast,” she says. “I’m hoping that whatever I do, it involves a combination of the three.”


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Elainy shares her #SuffolkStory 



Greg Gatlin
Office of Public Affairs