This is Massachusetts signature-collecting season, the time of year when activists who are attempting to get a proposed legislation on the state ballot gather at busy intersections, town dumps and farmers markets, carrying initiative petitions for voters to sign.
Most passersby refuse to help out many dont even slow down long enough to find out what the proposed legislation would do. Perhaps they would be less aloof if they considered how much effort it takes for private citizens to get a measure on the ballot.
To begin, they must live in a state where grassroots ballot initiatives are permissible in nearly half of the states, such forms of direct democracy do not exist. Massachusetts, happily, is one of the few states that allow citizen lawmaking. This year, 30 ballot measures, involving issues as varied as liquor licenses, fireworks, and whale-safe fishing gear, were submitted to Attorney General Maura Healey for approval. The AGs office certified only 17 of those 30, allowing them to proceed to the next step in the process.
For a proposed measure to go forward, supporters must gather signatures from 80,239 registered voters, not more than 2% of whom may live in the same county. The signatures must then be submitted to the registrars in individual city and town halls for certification by Nov. 17.
Then comes the six-month wait, during which the Legislature has the option of passing the proposed bill directly. If it doesnt do so by May 4, 2022, supporters will have to go through a second round of signature-collecting. Theyll have until July 6 to get another 13,374 registered voters to sign petitions. If they get there, the measure will be on the fall ballot and the bills opponents may begin their election campaign in earnest.
But that only scratches the surface of what ballot activists must deal with.
If a Cambridge or Quincy voter signs if they do not have matriculated as Massachusetts voters, the petitioners must also have separate petition sheets for each city or town in their area: unless he signs for Cambridge, Quinton or Cambridge on statewide petition sheet, that signature is discarded. The petitioners must also ensure that individuals 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 discarded.
No note, no underline, not check mark, and no doodle, highlighting, or arrow, nor coffee stain are visible anywhere on the petition sheets when printing and handling them. Under Massachusetts law, there may be no extraneous markings on a ballot petition. One errant smudge, one ding, and every signature on the sheet is thrown out. Its an outrageous impediment, which is exactly 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 minor omissions on petition sheets.
In the face of so many restrictions and obstacles, initiative petitioners are well aware that a significant percentage of the signatures they submit are likely to be invalidated. According to Chip Ford, the executive director of Citizens for Limited Taxation and a veteran of many Massachusetts ballot campaigns, they have no choice but to collect far more than the legal minimum at least 50 percent more. CLT, the grassroots activist group that put Proposition 212 on the ballot in 1980, is now battling an attempt to stop a rise in gasoline taxes. Ford estimates that roughly 120,000 raw signatures will have to be submitted by Nov. 17 in order to ensure that 80,239 of them will pass.
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 has cleared to circulate will not obtain the signatures needed to move forward. In any election in the last 20 years, no more than four citizen-sponsored initiatives have made it to the ballot. The vast majority of would-be ballot measures are derailed before they are even presented to voters. Incredibly, only 84 citizen petitions were ever brought to a vote of the people in the 102 years since the Massachusetts Constitution included the right of initiative and referendum and only 38 were adopted.
What is true in Massachusetts is also true throughout the country. Between 2010 and 2020, 4,685 ballot initiatives were filed in the 50 states that allow ballots to be passed at the polls, according to Victoria Antram, a researcher for the nonpartisan political research firm Ballotpedia. Only 340 of them survived the procedural hurdle and made the ballot. And of those, only 178 were approved by voters.
By contrast, tens of thousands of laws are passed in the state legislatures each term. In the 2013-2014 political cycle, for example, Congressional Quarterly recorded 45,564 bills passed in the 50 states (and the District of Columbia) an average of 447 bills approved per state each year. When The Washington Post examined the data separately, it found a nearly identical outcome.
In the biennial legislative session that ended last year, the Legislature of Massachusetts passed 539 legislation. And it did so, for the most part, without experiencing any of the public scrutiny initiative petitions are subjected to. In fact, Beacon Hill is well-known for its lack of openness. The fate of virtually all bills is decided behind closed doors by a select few powerful members, with no public input or open debate. Dont confuse what goes on in this building with democracy, a well-trained State House lobbyist told slew of reporters in frantic exasperation.
Politicians and political pundits often deride ballot initiatives as confusing for voters, lacking in nuance, or too easily manipulable by special interests and advertising. The odds of a successful initiative petition being rejected are high, yet legislators often propose new restrictions and requirements to make them even more severe.
But if political insiders criticize the initiative and referendum process, the rest of us have every reason to embrace it. Ballot campaigns are often the only means to bypass legislators who turn a blind eye to the public. Its not easy to get a law passed by popular vote. Those who succeed have almost invariably been subject to more rigorous vetting, more thorough debate, and more open coverage than 90 percent of the bills approved in the Legislature.
When you see activists gathering signatures for a ballot initiative, youre seeing citizen lawmaking at its finest. Want to stick it to Beacon Hill? Stop and sign the petition.
Jeff Jacoby can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @jeff_jacoby. Visit bitly.com/Arguable to download Arguable, his weekly newsletter.