This is signature-collecting season in Massachusetts, the time of year when activists working to get a proposed law on the state ballot fan out to busy intersections, town dumps, and farmers’ markets, bearing initiative petitions for voters to sign.
Most passersby decline to help out — many don’t even slow down long enough to find out what the proposed law would do. Perhaps they would be less aloof if they considered just how much effort it takes for private citizens to actually get a measure onto the ballot.
To begin with, they have to live in a state in which grassroots ballot initiatives are permitted — in half the states, such forms of direct democracy don’t exist. Massachusetts, happily, is among the states that do allow citizen lawmaking. This year 30 proposed ballot measures, involving issues as varied as liquor licenses, fireworks, and whale-safe fishing gear, were submitted to Attorney General Maura Healey for approval. Of those 30, the AG’s office certified only 17 as meeting the requirements outlined in the Massachusetts constitution, clearing them to advance to the next part of the process.
For a proposed law to move forward, its supporters must collect signatures from 80,239 registered voters, no more than a quarter of whom may live in the same county. Those signatures then have to be submitted to the registrars in individual city and town halls for certification by Nov. 17.
Then come six months of waiting, during which the Legislature has the option of enacting the proposed law directly. If it hasn’t done so by May 4, 2022, supporters will need to go through a second round of signature-collecting. They’ll have until July 6 to get an additional 13,374 registered voters to sign petitions. If they get that far, the measure goes to the fall ballot and the law’s proponents can begin their election campaign in earnest.
But that only scratches the surface of what ballot activists must deal with.
Besides confirming that people signing their petitions are registered Massachusetts voters, the petitioners must have a separate sheet for each city or town in their area: If a voter registered in Cambridge or Quincy signs a petition sheet for Boston, that signature is thrown out. The petitioners must also ensure that people sign their full legal names and list their home addresses exactly as they appear on the voter rolls. No nicknames, no P.O. box numbers. Otherwise, the signatures are tossed.
In printing and handling the petition sheets, the signature-collectors must go to extraordinary lengths to make sure that not a single stray mark appears anywhere on either the front or back — no note, no underline, no check mark, no doodle, no highlighting, no arrow, no coffee stain. Under Massachusetts law, there may be no “extraneous markings” on a ballot petition. One errant smudge, one squiggle, and every signature on the sheet is thrown out. It’s an outrageous impediment, which is just how Beacon Hill wants it. In 1999, the Supreme Judicial Court upheld the voiding of more than 3,500 signatures — enough to disqualify a ballot campaign — because of some insignificant jottings on the petition sheets.
Facing so many strictures and hurdles, initiative petition campaigners know that a significant chunk of the signatures they submit are bound to be invalidated. So they have no choice but to collect far more than the number legally required — at least 50 percent more, according to Chip Ford, the executive director of Citizens for Limited Taxation and a veteran of many Massachusetts ballot campaigns. CLT, the grassroots activist group that put Proposition 2½ on the ballot in 1980, is currently backing an initiative to block an increase in gasoline taxes. Ford estimates that roughly 120,000 “raw” signatures will have to be turned in by Nov. 17 in order to be sure that 80,239 of them will pass muster.
Legislators and other political insiders tend to resent initiative petitions as an infringement on their governing monopoly, which explains why citizens trying to get a measure on the ballot face so many obstacles. If history is any guide, most of the 17 initiative petitions that the attorney general cleared to circulate will not succeed in garnering the signatures needed to move forward. Over the past 20 years, no more than four citizen-sponsored initiatives have made it to the ballot in any election. The vast majority of would-be ballot measures are derailed before they ever get to the voters. Incredibly, in the 102 years since the right of initiative and referendum was added to the Massachusetts Constitution, only 84 citizen petitions were ultimately brought to a vote of the people — and only 38 were enacted.
What is true in Massachusetts is true nationwide. Between 2010 and 2020, according to Victoria Antram, a researcher for the nonpartisan political research firm Ballotpedia, a total of 4,685 ballot initiatives were filed in the states that permit laws to be passed at the polls. Only 340 of them survived the procedural gauntlet and made the ballot. And of those, just 178 were ultimately approved by voters.
By contrast, tens of thousands of laws are enacted in the state legislatures every single term. In the 2013-2014 political cycle, for example, Congressional Quarterly tallied 45,564 bills passed in the 50 states (and the District of Columbia) — an average of 447 bills approved per state per year. The Washington Post, crunching the numbers separately, reached an almost identical result.
Here in Massachusetts, the Legislature enacted 539 laws in the biennial legislative session that ended last year. And it did so, for the most part, without facing so much as a shred of the public scrutiny that initiative petitions are subjected to. Indeed, Beacon Hill is notorious for its lack of transparency. The fate of virtually all bills is decided behind closed doors by a few powerful members, with no public input or open debate. “Don’t confuse what goes on in this building with democracy,” a seasoned State House lobbyist told a reporter in a moment of undisguised exasperation.
Politicians and political pundits often deride ballot initiatives as confusing for voters, lacking in nuance, or too easily manipulated by special interests and advertising. The odds against any initiative petition’s success are steep, yet lawmakers frequently propose new restrictions and requirements designed to make them even steeper.
But if political insiders begrudge the initiative and referendum process, the rest of us have every reason to embrace it. Ballot campaigns are often the only outlet available to bypass lawmakers who turn a deaf ear to the public. It isn’t easy to get a law enacted by popular vote. Those that succeed have almost invariably been subjected to more careful vetting, more thorough debate, and more transparent coverage than 90 percent of the bills approved in the Legislature.
When you see activists collecting signatures for a ballot initiative, you’re seeing citizen lawmaking at its finest. Want to stick it to Beacon Hill? Stop and sign the petition.