In November, the people of Massachusetts will take to the polls to vote for Governor, Attorney General, Senators, Representatives, and other elected officials. Included on the ballot, will be a number of questions pertaining to state legislation. In 2013, over 30 petitions were filed to add or change a state law and four will be voted on this year in the form of ballot questions. How these questions got onto the ballot is not always understood, even though it is an important part of the Massachusetts Constitution.
In 1918, voters approved Amendment Article 48 to the Constitution of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts. This article states that, “the people reserve to themselves the popular initiative, which is the power of a specified number of voters to submit constitutional amendments and laws to the people for approval or rejection; and the popular referendum, which is the power of a specified number of voters to submit laws, enacted by the general court, to the people for their ratification or rejection.” This means that the citizens of Massachusetts have the right to affect the laws within their state. Voters have the ability to repeal laws, create new ones or even add amendments to the state Constitution.
Petitioning for a question to appear on the biennial state election ballot, while a constitutional right, can be a complicated process with many steps that follow a strict timeline over two years. An important part of this process is that once a petition is filed with the Office of the Attorney General, the Attorney General then must decide if the petition meets certain constitutional requirements as put forth in Amendment Article 48. The first requirements are simply that the measure is submitted in the correct format and that a substantially similar measure has not been submitted in either of the two proceeding state elections. The final qualification for certification is more complicated. It is stated that the measure can not contain any subjects that the constitution excludes from the initiative process. Some of these excluded subjects are religion, judges, local issues, and state constitutional rights. This review process can bring up difficult legal issues and so the discussion is open to both sponsors and opponents of the proposed law. Interested parties are welcome to participate by submitting memoranda on if the law should be certified or not, or by reviewing and commenting on draft summaries of the measure. While it is up to the Attorney General to determine whether or not the petition is certified, these petitions come from the public and their input is crucial.
While this process can be arduous, there are multiple detailed guides and outlines to help you understand each step and meet each deadline:
You can also check out ballot questions from every election since 1919 on the Secretary of State’s site, as well as this year’s petitions and their current statuses on the Attorney General’s site.