The Boston Globe
December 29, 2002
Measure Targets Ballot Drives
Required Signatures Would Rise To 100,000
By Joanna Weiss, Globe Staff
The citizens' initiative petition, a process that created the Clean Elections Law and nearly wiped out the state income tax last month, would become more difficult for residents to use under a bill filed by a state senator.
Stanley C. Rosenberg's bill would sharply increase the number of certified signatures required to put a question on the ballot, raising it for the next election cycle from 72,000 to 100,000.
Rosenberg, an Amherst Democrat, said he was inspired by a recent national study finding that initiative petitions are open to manipulation by wealthy special-interest groups. He said the bill would bring the law in step with the realities of today's ballot drives, which increasingly rely on paid signature-gatherers and large out-of-state financial donations.
The measure, which requires a change in the state constitution and approval by voters, would also tighten financial reporting requirements for initiative petitions, ordering swifter disclosure of large donations.
But if it gains momentum in the Legislature - an open question, since lawmakers are expected to be embroiled in a budget crisis - the bill could also set off a debate over whether the initiative process, which has helped shape Massachusetts law since 1917, is still a useful or necessary tool. Some government watchdogs and advocacy groups see the bill as a veiled attempt by lawmakers to kill the process outright, since it has produced results that legislators don't like.
The Legislature has recently resisted funding the Clean Elections Law, and it froze the income tax rollback voters passed in 2000, noted Barbara Anderson, executive director of Citizens for Limited Taxation, a group that has helped to pass some of the most prominent ballot measures in recent state history.
Now, she said, lawmakers seem to have decided that "just ignoring the petition after it passes isn't going to be enough forever. Therefore, they felt they should probably get out there now and drive a stake through its heart."
And Pam Wilmot, director of Common Cause Massachusetts, notes that the mere threat of citizen-driven initiative petitions, which differ from Legislature-introduced referendums, has been useful in persuading the Legislature to create a state Ethics Commission and implement other reforms.
"It's the best way to make law when you have tons of support for an issue and the Legislature's just not listening," she said.
But with higher signature requirements, she said, the process could become so arduous that only people who could afford to pay signature-gatherers would be able to put questions on the ballot.
Rosenberg admits that he is no fan of the initiative process; he would prefer nonbinding advisory questions to guide lawmakers about public sentiment. But he said he believes voters across the state want to keep ballot petitions in place.
"This is fine-tuning," he said. "If I wanted to kill it, I would have filed a bill to repeal it."
Initiative petitions are responsible for some of the most dramatic changes in Massachusetts law in the last few decades. In 1980, voters statewide passed Proposition
2˝, a measure that limits increases in local property tax rates. In 1994, they passed a measure that ended rent control in Boston and Cambridge.
This past November, voters faced two initiative petitions.
They approved an initiative financed by California millionaire Ron Unz to replace bilingual education with English immersion classes. And they rejected a bid, spearheaded by Libertarian gubernatorial candidate Carla Howell, to eliminate the state income tax. But that measure received more support than many political analysts had predicted, startling some lawmakers.
Some critics of the process point to the income tax vote - which opponents said would have wreaked further havoc on the budget - to explain what's wrong with the initiative process. Voters aren't always fully aware of the financial impact a ballot question will have, Rosenberg said.
"We are making more and more complicated laws and more and more simplistic, one-sided bills," he said. "A very simplistic title and message is all they usually use to get people to sign at the supermarket to get it on the ballot. And then once it's on the ballot, you're halfway there."
But Anderson said it's hardly easy to get initiative petitions on the ballot. The current state law requires signatures from 3 percent of the number of votes cast in the most recent gubernatorial election, plus another one-half of 1 percent if the Legislature chooses not to take up the bill on its own. But to discourage legal challenges to the validity of signatures, which she said have become commonplace, her group now tries to collect twice as many signatures as it needs.
During a petition drive, she said, "you just forget about having a life. It's constant 40, 80 hours a week, weekends. That's when you're out petitioning, you're organizing. You just don't do anything else."
The proposed bill, cosponsored by Representative Robert P. Spellane, a Worcester Democrat, would change the requirement to 2.5 percent of the number of registered voters, a higher number.
It would also change the way the ballot questions, and the publicly disseminated information about them, are written.
Drafting of the questions has become a controversial process, as opponents have accused one another of manipulating the wording to get desired results.
Currently, the secretary of state and attorney general are responsible for the wording of ballot questions and informational summaries. The bill would create a commission, filled with members of advocacy and watchdog groups, that would hold public hearings and vote on the wording.
But Wilmot said that process itself would be vulnerable to logistical difficulties and political machinations.
Spellane said the bill would also address the mechanics of signature-gathering, requiring groups to collect signatures for one initiative petition at a time. This winter, an Arizona-based company collected signatures for a drive to protect horses from slaughterhouses at the same time it was gathering signatures for a drive to ban gay marriage - prompting some residents to complain, after the fact, that they didn't know which petition they were signing.
"We're trying to prevent mistakes like that from happening," Spellane said. "We're looking to inform the public more of what goes into these petitions."
Spellane said supporters of the bill have collected support from at least a dozen House members. Because changing the number of signatures required would mean a change to the state constitution, it would need a public vote to pass.
Wilmot said advocacy groups will work to fight some measures of the bill, while supporting increased financial disclosure requirements.
And on her own group's Web site, Anderson has already put out a call for action, complete with a quote from Revolutionary War hero John Paul Jones: "We have not yet begun to fight."
Sunday, January 5, 2003
Voters too wise to fall for this bill
By Taylor Armerding, Staff Writer
You probably didn't realize it, but one of the first things you need in the year 2003 is to be saved from yourself. But that, you see, is because you are vulnerable to manipulation.
This favor comes courtesy of state Sen. Stanley C. Rosenberg, D-Amherst, yet another in a long line of selfless legislators willing to put themselves on the line, to stand up, to fight for us, the hapless, helpless, clueless average voters of Massachusetts.
Rosenberg has filed a bill that would make it much more difficult to file citizens' initiative petitions to create or amend laws. Instead of requiring 72,000 certified signatures of registered voters to put a question on the ballot, his bill would require 100,000 -- nearly 50 percent more.
We, in our clueless state, might think the good senator is actually making this portion of the democratic process more difficult but hey, sometimes the serfs must suffer a little pain so that, in the words of the Boss to Cool Hand Luke so many years ago, we can "get our minds right."
We are apparently under the delusion that voters should occasionally have a direct hand in passing laws, especially when legislators won't pay any attention to them. We are under the delusion that the barriers to initiative petitions should not be insurmountable.
Of course, if you listen to Sen. Rosenberg, you will be reassured that this is not an attempt to disenfranchise those who seek to pass laws by popular vote. This is all because of a national study that has concluded that initiative petitions are open to manipulation by wealthy special interest groups.
Horrifying, isn't it. Who knew?
But, having observed things like this for several decades, I suspect Sen. Rosenberg's bill has less to do with us being manipulated, and more to do with the fact that, in last November's election, initiative petitions ordered drastic reforms in a bloated bilingual education program that has been a colossal failure, and came uncomfortably close to dumping the entire state income tax. I suspect it has more to do with "the people" wielding something more than symbolic power.
It also makes me wonder if he has ever attended a Town Meeting, or even a hearing at the Statehouse.
News bulletin to Sen. Rosenberg: EVERYTHING in politics is open to manipulation. That's why the Statehouse is crawling with lobbyists, and not just those representing the straw man of "wealthy" special interests. There are plenty there in behalf of labor unions and tree huggers as well. That's why you see poor kids in wheelchairs dragged to hearings on human services budgets.
Initiative petitions are no more manipulative than any political campaign, including the most recent one that resulted in Sen. Rosenberg's re-election. Every campaign is an effort to limit and control the information voters receive. Every campaign seeks simple slogans to define complicated issues. When it is done in his behalf, I suspect Rosenberg would call it "good political strategy," or simple "educating the voters."
Ultimately, this is yet more political doublespeak on the intelligence of voters. When politicians win, they are filled with effusive praise for the wisdom of voters, who were "too smart to be fooled" by the campaign of the other guy.
So, senator, which is it? Are we smart or stupid? If we're smart, then there is no need to "tweak" the initiative petition process to save us from manipulation. If we're stupid, then maybe your own election results need to be tweaked. Maybe you shouldn't even be in office, if you were placed there by people too dumb to know any better.
The Telegram & Gazette
Wednesday, April 9, 2003
Hearing is tomorrow on initiative petitions
Spellane co-authors effort to curb process
By Shaun Sutner, Staff writer
A move to restrict the system that allows citizens to make laws at the ballot box is drawing wide opposition from conservative and progressive activists.
Two liberal lawmakers want to scale back the initiative petition process by hiking the number of signatures to get a question on the ballot, setting up a commission to review ballot questions and limiting the rights of signature gatherers.
State Rep. Robert P. Spellane, D-Worcester, and Sen. Stanley C. Rosenberg, D-Amherst, have filed two bills that would make the changes. The measures will be debated at what is expected to be a hotly contested hearing at the Statehouse tomorrow.
Mr. Spellane argued that with lawmakers increasingly hostile to the initiative process, the legislation will reform a system that many observers see as deeply flawed.
The recent successes of ballot measures financed by out-of-state donors or spearheaded by small groups surprised many lawmakers. They include passage in the November election of an initiative that banned bilingual education and the near approval of a question to eliminate the state income tax.
"We're trying to improve the current petition process,' Mr. Spellane said, noting that one of the measures also provides for fuller disclosure by financial donors, the only part of the proposal backed by initiative supporters.
"If we had wanted to file a bill to kill the initiative petition process, we would have done that,' he said.
The bills' opponents range from Citizens for Limited Taxation, which spearheaded passage of the property tax-limiting Proposition
2˝ in 1980, to Massachusetts Voters for Clean Elections, author of the 1998 campaign finance law.
Pamela P. Wilmot, executive director of Common Cause Massachusetts, which also opposes the measures, said that despite one or two positive proposed changes, the overall result would be negative.
"We're not going to get into quibbling over details. The effect of the bills is to kill the citizen initiative process," Ms. Wilmot said. "It was instituted to be a check on an unresponsive Legislature. That situation is even more true today."
One of the measures would amend the state constitution. To pass, it must first be approved by two successive sessions of the Legislature, then by the public.
Among other changes, it would increase the number of signatures required to place a question on the ballot from 57,100 to 72,000.
It would also set up a commission to draft titles and language for ballot questions - tasks now performed by the secretary of state and attorney general.
The other bill would set up a commission to draft "fiscal impact statements' detailing the financial effect of ballot questions. It would also require signature collectors to wear identification badges and collect signatures for only one campaign at a time.
The Boston Herald
Thursday, April 10, 2003
A Boston Herald editorial
Ballot questions targeted
Direct democracy would be an endangered species in Massachusetts if state Sen. Stan Rosenberg (D-Amherst) gets his way and gains support for his proposals to gut the initiative petition process.
By cloaking his plans in "good government" rhetoric, Rosenberg apparently thinks he can convince voters he's improving the process, but voters won't be fooled. They know ballot questions are sometimes the only way to impose their will in a legislative process dominated by special interests. And they know the initiative petition process works just fine the way it is.
Sure, the Legislature has been perfectly willing to stomp all over voters' wishes when it thinks it can get away with it.
But still voters have gotten the income tax down to 5.3 percent, freed children from the oppression of bilingual education, and controlled property taxes by using the power of the ballot box.
Voters have also used their power judiciously. A ballot question abolishing the income tax was defeated last year. A drastic spending cut plan lost during the last fiscal crisis.
But the wisdom of voters is apparently lost on Rosenberg. He wants to double the number of signatures required to get an initiative petition or constitutional amendment on the ballot, setting the bar for citizens' groups far too high. (We must have missed his proposal to increase the number of signatures legislators need to get their names on the ballot.)
More ominously, Rosenberg proposes setting up two new commissions to tinker with the wording of the ballot question summary and to author a "fiscal impact statement."
The fiscal impact committee includes the Massachusetts Municipal Association. And certainly these local leaders are experts at summarizing how devastating proposed spending and tax cuts can be.
Maybe someday the initiative petition process will become obsolete. Legislators will represent the will of the voters and good government will reign on Beacon Hill. Pigs will fly then, too. For now, citizens need to preserve their power to represent themselves.
The Telegram & Gazette
April 10, 2003
A Telegram & Gazette editorial
Proposals would undermine initiative petition
The Legislature should reject proposed changes that would make it more difficult for grass-roots organizations to make law via the ballot box.
A Statehouse hearing on bills sponsored by state Sen. Stanley C. Rosenberg of Northampton and Rep. Robert P. Spellane of Worcester is scheduled today. The legislation would require groups to gather the signatures of 2.5 percent of registered voters to place on the ballot a proposal to change a state law - a daunting 99,316 signatures instead of the current 65,825. Proposed constitutional changes would need signatures from 3 percent of registered voters, about 119,180 signatures.
The lawmakers' stated intent is worthy: to counterbalance the influence of well-heeled interests, often from out of state, in initiative campaigns. Moreover, the Legislature's hostility to petition drives funded by outsiders is understandable and, to some extent, we share lawmakers' concern.
However, the proposed changes are the wrong way to address them. The new requirements wouldn't faze a Ron Unz - the California billionaire who bankrolled the English immersion petition drive - and his army of signature collectors. But the changes would place a huge burden on grass-roots movements that depend largely on volunteers.
As we have said before, the right of initiative petition, established in 1917, was not intended to usurp Legislative prerogatives and certainly not to establish an ad hoc People's Legislature. It was intended to be used sparingly, empowering the electorate to make laws when elected representatives refuse to act.
That right must not be abridged.
The Boston Globe
Thursday, April 10, 2003
Groups fight bid to tighten the rules on referendums
By Frank Phillips, Globe Staff
A diverse coalition including conservative antitax leaders, liberal activists,
and a leading government watchdog group is mounting an attack on a proposed
constitutional amendment that would make it much more difficult to enact laws
through ballot referendum.
The coalition plans to show up in force today before the Legislature's Committee
on Election Laws as it hears testimony on the controversial plan pushed by
Among other changes, the proposal would raise by 50 percent the number of voter
signatures required for a question to reach the state election ballot.
"We are not going to let this thing happen," said Barbara Anderson,
executive director of Citizens for Limited Taxation. CLT and Anderson
have used the initiative petition process to drive a strong antitax agenda in
Massachusetts, greatly influencing politics and policy makers in the 1980s and
The coalition is convinced the proposal is aimed at stifling citizens' efforts,
which over the years have resulted in changes in environmental, campaign
finance, and anticorruption laws over the objections of Beacon Hill leaders. CLT
is part of a group that includes Citizens for Participation in Political Action,
the Sierra Club, MassPIRG, Common Cause, the antigreyhound racing group Grey 2k
USA, and Massachusetts Voters for Clean Elections.
The proposal has drawn strong opposition from Secretary of State William F.
Galvin. Attorney General Thomas Reilly has also voiced concerns about it.
"This is a direct attack on voters' rights," Galvin said. "There
is no doubt that the objective here is to make it more difficult to bring
questions before the voters for their decision. This merely increases
But Senate President Pro Tempore Stanley Rosenberg, an Amherst Democrat and lead
sponsor of the proposal, said his amendment is designed to put the brakes on a
process that is careening out of control. He said modern political campaign
techniques - paid signature-gatherers, polling, focus groups, and 30-second
television ads - have allowed for the system to be manipulated.
"People have learned how to game the system," he said.
Rosenberg said the referendum process, which was created in 1918, has not been
revamped since 1950.
Petitions currently require 66,000 voters' signatures to reach the ballot. Under
Rosenberg's proposal, that number would rise to 99,000.
Nationally, the referendum process has come under increasing fire, as
well-financed special interests and millionaires have bankrolled campaigns to
change state laws and constitutions.
But the coalition of groups lined up to battle the proposal says Rosenberg
merely represents the trend on Beacon Hill for legislative leaders to
consolidate power and shut out citizens' participation.
Highlighting that power grab, they say, is the fact that next door to today's
elections law hearing is another hearing by the Joint Committee on Public
Service on a bill pushed by House Speaker Thomas M. Finneran. It would give him
and the Senate president the power, with their members' approval, to set extra
stipends for lawmakers. Currently, any stipend has to be passed by the
Legislature and signed by the governor.
"I will have two feet in two different rooms," said Pam Wilmot,
executive director of Common Cause. "This is two examples of taking power
from the public to influence the political process. It is symbolic of the trend
of the centralization of power ... in the Legislature."
The MetroWest Daily News
Friday, April 11, 2003
Ballot questions could get tougher
By Michael Kunzelman
A local legislator hopes to give his fellow lawmakers more time in office, make it harder to put state referendum questions on the ballot and grant the governor more power in case of terror attacks.
A bill co-sponsored by state Sen. Richard Moore, D-Uxbridge, would require sponsors of initiative petitions to collect at least 110,000 signatures for a proposed change in a law and 119,000 signatures for a proposed constitutional amendment.
Under the current law, sponsors of both types of initiatives only have to gather 65,825 signatures this year.
The measure also would impose limits on paid signature-gatherers and would set stricter financial reporting requirements for backers of ballot initiatives.
Moore also sponsored two other measures that were heard by the Election Laws Committee yesterday, including increasing the terms for state senators and state representatives from two to four years.
"I hear from so many people who say they can't believe we only serve two-year terms," Moore said.
Moore said lawmakers are barely a year into a term before they have to hit the campaign trail again.
"They don't have as much time to do the job they were elected to do," he said.
Thirty-one states have four-year terms for senators and/or House members, according to Moore.
But only four states - Alabama, Lousiana, Mississippi and Maryland - have four-year terms for both senators and representatives, said Common Cause Executive Director Pamela Wilmot.
"We don't need less elections in Massachusetts. We need more," Wilmot said, citing a Common Cause report that Massachusetts ranks next to last in the number of contested legislative races.
"The hallmark of democracy is elections," she added. "We need elections to make legislators more responsive to the public."
Moore also sponsored a bill that would allow the governor to fill the Legislature with emergency appointments in the event of a terrorist attack or a natural disaster at the State House.
If more than one-third of the seats in either the House or Senate are vacant in the wake of an attack or disaster, the governor would be authorized to fill posts with someone from the same political party who lives in each district.
Moore said the bill is patterned after federal legislation geared toward responding to a terrorist attack on Capitol Hill.
But it was the plan to raise the legal bar that initiative petitions have to clear to qualify for the ballot that pitted grass-roots advocates against lawmakers.
State Sen. Stanley Rosenberg, who co-authored the bill and testified in favor of it during an Election Laws Committee hearing yesterday, said the legislation is designed to curb abuse of the state's referendum process.
"People are manipulating the process," the Amherst Democrat said. "The initiative process was never intended to be used so aggressively. It's not supposed to be an everyday tool for everyday legislation, and that's the way it is becoming."
But the bill's critics, including Common Cause of Massachusetts and Citizens for Limited Taxation, claim the state's laws governing initiative petitions already are among the toughest in the nation.
"You have to get a lot of signatures in a very short period of time," said Wilmot.
Ballot initiatives are an important check and balance on the Legislature's power to make laws, Wilmot added.
"Many legislators are opposed to the legislative process because it restricts their unfettered ability to make policy, and that's exactly why we need it," she said.
CLT Executive Director Barbara Anderson said the measure is intended to "kill" the initiative petition process.
"The system works just fine the way it is," she said. "They're trying to take away the last element of grass-roots participation in the political process. They're going to push even more of us into paying professional petitioners."
Secretary of State William Galvin testified against Rosenberg's bill during the hearing.
"It's an obvious effort to restrict voters' rights," he said later during an interview. "It's a bad idea... (The bill's sponsors) are addressing a problem that isn't a problem."
The bill represents the first major effort to overhaul the petition process in 50 years.
Moore rejected the notion that the measure would block grass-roots groups' access to the ballot.
"If it's something that people really want, they won't have any trouble getting the signatures," he said.
Moore said grass-roots groups are rarely the driving force behind the petitions that make it onto the ballot.
"They're almost invariably funded by special interests that aren't able to get their way through the legislative process," he added
Sunday, April 13, 2003
An Eagle-Tribune editorial
A wolf in sheep's clothing
Don't believe it.
State Sen. Stanley C. Rosenberg, D-Amherst, says his bill to "reform" the initiative petition process is not an attempt to kill it. He says if he wanted to destroy the ability of average voters to pass laws, he would have filed a bill to do exactly that.
Don't believe it. Legislators rarely do things directly. It is much safer, and usually more successful, to do it indirectly.
Rosenberg is indeed trying to kill the only avenue to direct democracy in Massachusetts. He is just trying to kill it softly. He is hoping that, just like the frog in the cook pot, voters won't notice the heat gradually increasing on their already limited powers until it is too late and those powers are boiled out of existence.
Rosenberg's bill, Senate 362, which came before the Legislature's Committee on Election Laws this past week, would increase the number of signatures necessary to put a question on the ballot by at least 50 percent -- almost 100 percent in the case of a constitutional amendment. It would also give local elected officials a much greater voice on ballot question summaries, again giving more power to government to control information about those questions.
This, Rosenberg says, is necessary because the initiative process is out of control.
Not really. It's more that it is out of *his* control. He and other legislators can't stand the thought of their constituents actually ordering them to do something that they would rather ignore. Their flagrant disregard of the express will of the voters in the Clean Elections referendum is evidence enough of that.
This bill, the senator says, is necessary because the process is being increasingly controlled by powerful special-interest groups who have learned how to "game the system."
If that is true, this bill will make that problem even worse. The reality is that the initiative petition is about the only thing that can trump special interests. If the barriers to petitions are raised even higher, only powerful and wealthy special interests will be able to marshal the forces to collect enough signatures to put something on the ballot. Smaller, grass-roots groups will be disenfranchised.
And if, as Rosenberg says, voters are being manipulated by those powerful special interests, his next move should be to shut down town meetings, elections, legislative hearings and any other elements of participatory democracy. As the senator should know, they are all subject to interest groups, large and small, who have learned how to game the system.
Every political campaign is an effort to control information, to reduce complicated issues to simple slogans -- in short, to manipulate public opinion.
It is not that Rosenberg has a problem with manipulating public opinion. He just wants himself and his colleagues to be the ones doing it.
Citizens, don't let it happen. Call your legislators and tell them to kill this bill before it silences one of the last voices you have remaining.
The North Adams Transcript
Saturday, August 16, 2003
Voters facing less ballot issues
By Erik Arvidson, Statehouse Bureau
In what good-government groups say is an ominous sign for democracy in Massachusetts, voters may be facing far fewer of those brain-testing ballot questions when they go to the ballot box in 2004.
Considered the lifeblood of citizen activism, ballot measures are a way for grassroots groups to directly make laws that are as sweeping as eliminating the income tax to as particular as banning certain types of beaver hunting traps.
But 2004 may be a quieter year for direct Democracy in Massachusetts, as only 14 initiative petitions were filed with the state Attorney General's office by the Aug. 6 deadline, which is about half the number that were filed in the last three elections.
Some activist groups blame the dearth of ballot question proposals on the recent moves by the Legislature to gut or substantially alter four different ballot initiatives, sending a message of defiance to the voters.
"Part of the reason for the fewer number of initiatives is that the state Legislature is clearly treating all initiative petitions as advisory, not as binding laws," said Joseph O'Brien, executive director of the Massachusetts Voters for Clean Elections. "If you look at the recent history, you'll see that the Legislature hasn't taken the voters too seriously."
Lawmakers insist that they are doing their duty of representing the people by tweaking laws that may be flawed, but O'Brien blames legislative disdain for the voters.
"There is a certain arrogance. They ultimately believe the voters aren't competent enough to make public policy," said O'Brien, who unsuccessfully fought to prevent lawmakers from dismantling the voter-approved Clean Elections law.
O'Brien added, "In reality, we don't have a functioning democracy when two-thirds of the Legislature has no competition, and 97 percent of those who do are reelected. When there is no competition, people use the blunt instrument of a ballot question to hold their legislators accountable."
But some lawmakers argue that the 14 initiative petitions is a far more reasonable number to be filed than the 27 that were filed two years ago, considering that the laws should be written by professional lawmakers and not citizens.
"The initiative petition process is supposed to be used infrequently as a safety valve for the citizenry," said state Sen. Stanley C. Rosenberg, an Amherst Democrat who wants to tighten the standards for ballot questions. "It's not supposed to be a primary means to make a law. People now think of ballot questions as routine. Initiative petitions are supposed to be there for the rare circumstance where a group of citizens feel they are not being heard."
Rosenberg pointed out that just two of the 27 initiative petitions filed two years ago made it onto the ballot, while just six of the 33 initiative petitions filed in 2000 were placed onto that ballot. Most of the petitions, even if they are popular, are written by people who don't have a background in constitutional law, lawmakers are quick to point out.
Legislators also stress that only 26 states allow ballot questions, and many that do have similar restrictions as Massachusetts.
Pamela Wilmot, executive director of Common Cause Massachusetts, said she thought there was "no question" that the Legislature's moves over the last several years have stifled interest in organizing initiative campaigns.
"The actions of the Legislature has had some effect groups using the process," Wilmot said. "I think they're more circumspect, and realize that there is a lot more effort that goes into the process, such as lobbying in addition to going out for signatures. A lot of groups say 'Why bother?'"
Wilmot said that without the ballot measure process, it's possible that important reforms such as the creation of the Ethics Commission, Proposition 2˝, and strict campaign finance rules may not have been implemented.
"Let's face it, the initiative petition process does make governing more difficult," Wilmot said.
The Boston Globe
Wednesday, April 16, 2003
A Boston Globe editorial
The power of petitions
Direct democracy usually works better in theory than in practice. Still, for 85 years the initiative petition process has given Massachusetts voters a useful safety valve, a mechanism for challenging the political establishment when it becomes too high-handed. The process has flaws, but proposals circulating on Beacon Hill to change it -- through a constitutional amendment and a statute -- threaten more harm than good.
In particular, the proposed constitutional amendment would significantly increase the number of signatures needed to place a measure on the ballot. If implemented, the increase would make it difficult for true grass-roots movements to collect the necessary number of signatures. Instead, most questions that made it to the ballot would be the ones sponsored by deep-pocket advocates who could afford to hire professional signature gatherers.
Senator Stanley Rosenberg of Amherst, lead sponsor of the proposed amendment, argues that the higher signature threshold would actually work to the advantage of grass-roots organizations because it would compel them to do the statewide organizing they would need to win. But this view is countered by the fact that many grass-roots organizations from across the political spectrum -- from Citizens for Limited Taxation and Government to Common Cause -- are opposing the changes. Indeed, Common Cause claims that the proposed changes "would eviscerate the citizen initiative process" by virtually requiring the use of paid help. Rosenberg argues further that Massachusetts has one of the lowest signature thresholds in the country, a figure below that originally intended. The requirement is based on the turnout of voters in the prior statewide election rather than on registered voters. Because turnout has declined, he says, the requirement for signatures has declined even while the population has gone up. But the bar still seems high enough based on the fact that there were only three questions on the 2002 ballot, though there were eight in 2000.
Another Rosenberg proposal would create a commission that could change the wording of a petition if it was misleading. Some wording can be deceptive, but giving a commission the power to change it would seem to open the way for worse abuse.
We opposed two major initiatives that passed in recent years -- the income tax rollback approved in 2000 and last year's question on bilingual education. Most often, such questions are better left to the Legislature. But the initiative process serves a useful purpose, and that purpose would be undercut by the proposed changes.
The Boston Herald
Wednesday, February 11, 2004
A Boston Herald editorial
Preserve ballot questions
The gay marriage issue is not the only matter of importance to come before the Constitutional Convention today. There are nine other items on the agenda.
There'll be plenty of time to extol the virtues and decry the harm of most of them if legislators vote to move them forward. However, one item stands out as particularly detrimental to the cause of citizen participation in government.
Item three on the convention agenda is an amendment sponsored by Sen. Stanley Rosenberg (D-Amherst) that will essentially do away with the initiative petition process, including the constitutional amendment process which will allow the people a vote on gay marriage.
By raising - significantly - the threshold for signatures needed to qualify a question for the ballot, the change rules out successful volunteer petition drives, and even makes ballot question campaigns backed by paid signature gathering nearly impossible.
Nor is the system broken. Under the current signature thresholds, and with the rigorous legal scrutiny now applied, no ballot questions were qualified to go before the voters in November.
The constitutional amendment also proposes to change the way ballot questions are summarized by the attorney general and secretary of state. Not only is the proposed commission process cumbersome, it also introduces politics into what has worked until now as a technical process.
Citizens for Limited Taxation, Common Cause and other activist groups joined forces to defeat similar legislation in committee last year.
We hope Gov. Mitt Romney is successful in increasing Republican representation in the Legislature. But up to now, the initiative petition process is what passes for two-party government in this state. Item three should be defeated.
The Boston Globe
Wednesday, February 11, 2004
A Boston Globe editorial
The 10th proposal would make it harder for the public to enact laws through the initiative petition process. We oppose most of these efforts because they do not allow for amendment, but the process is an important safety valve. The proposal would hurt grass-roots efforts and help special interests able to pay signature gatherers. It should be defeated.
The Telegram & Gazette
Wednesday, February 11, 2004
A Telegram & Gazette editorial
The people’s voice
Spellane plan undercuts initiative petition
While the Supreme Judicial Court decision on same-sex marriage grabbed headlines, another far-reaching proposal was making its way, virtually unnoticed, onto the agenda of today's constitutional convention.
An amendment proposed by state Sen. Stanley C. Rosenberg, D-Northampton, and state Rep. Robert P. Spellane, D-Worcester, would raise by more than 50 percent the number of signatures needed to place a question on the ballot — to 99,316 for a statutory change and 119,180 for a constitutional amendment.
The change is a misguided effort to deter wealthy activists such as billionaire Ron Unz. In fact, the Unzes of the world would simply dig a little deeper to hire even larger armies of paid signature-gatherers.
But grass-roots, volunteer organizations are hard-pressed to gather the 65,825 signatures now required. The amendment bars most, if not all, citizens groups from the process, consigning the people's right of initiative petition to well-heeled interests.
Initiative petition, established in 1917, is not intended to usurp legislative authority but to enable citizens to make laws when their representatives fail to act. Initiatives produced the Bottle Bill, establishment of the campaign finance office and the state Ethics Commission, enactment of conflict-of-interest laws and Proposition 2˝, among others.
As it is, the people's right to petition is fragile. In recent years, the Legislature has evaded or nullified initiatives on term limits, legislative salaries, the income tax rates, charitable deductions and more. But even citizen petitions that ultimately are subverted or defeated at the polls, as many are, stimulate public debate on issues lawmakers may be loath to confront.
The Rosenberg-Spellane amendment would be a setback for responsible, accountable state government. The constitutional convention should reject it.
The Lowell Sun
Wednesday, February 11, 2004
A Lowell Sun editorial
Vote for democracy
At the same time, there is at least one other noteworthy matter going before legislators at the convention that deserves public attention. Sen. Stanley Rosenberg, a Democrat from Amherst, is seeking a constitutional change to make it harder for citizens to get an initiative petition on the state ballot.
This is an affront to democracy and should be rejected.
Since 1918, the initiative petition process has been sacrosanct in Massachusetts, serving as a tool for the public to balance special interests that manage to exert undue influence on the Legislature. If it weren't for the initiative process, voters wouldn't have enacted Proposition 2˝, tax rollbacks, conflict-of-interest laws, and campaign finance reforms.
Rosenberg's proposal would diminish the public's hand by increasing the number of signatures needed to get a question on the ballot from 65,825 to 99,316 for a statutory change and 119,180 for a constitutional amendment.
We find it alarming that an elected official would stack the system against the very people he is sworn to serve. Legislators should preserve the direct voice of the people and reject the Rosenberg amendment.