Maybe you need to have been there.
Maybe you had to have been an Irish Democrat in 1918, feeling powerless
against the Yankee Republican ruling class, fighting for a
constitutional amendment that would give citizens like you the right to
get signatures and put issues on the ballot.
Maybe, at some point in your life, you had to care deeply about an issue
that, no matter how strong your arguments to the power structure on
Beacon Hill, you knew you had no chance to get passed by an indifferent
Name the issue: taxation, animal rights, the environment, birth
control, allowing Sunday sporting events, assistance for the elderly or
the blind, veterans' preferences. Politicians and lobbyists had the
power, and you had no chance.
You may have worked to elect new legislators who would help you with
your issue; but the power of incumbency -- the fund-raising ability, the
name recognition, the ability to do favors for constituents with
government money -- was very hard to overcome.
So you were glad that, after intense debate, the state Constitution was
amended with Article 48 at a Constitutional Convention, allowing
initiative petitions for either laws or other constitutional amendments.
You drafted your petition and took it to the attorney general, whose job
is to ensure that you followed all the constitutional rules.
If you had, you could then take your issue to the streets, spending
evenings at shopping malls and weekends at fairs, the town dump or the
post office, collecting tens of thousands of required signatures over
two months. Maybe you also raised money to pay a petition company to
You delivered your signatures to local city and town halls, across the
commonwealth, so that registrars and city/town clerks could identify the
registered voters in their jurisdiction; then you returned two weeks
later to pick them up and file them with the secretary of state.
You and your supporters attended a State House hearing on your petition,
waiting until legislators testified first, because their time is more
valuable than yours. If, seeing all the signatures, the Legislature was
supportive, it became law. If not, you went back to the street corners,
collected thousands more signatures, and finally were on the November
You raised money for media, trying to be competitive against usually
better-funded establishment opponents. You debated them, wrote letters
to the editor, visited editorial boards looking for support. In the end,
having made your best case to the voters, you won, or you lost. But
thanks to Article 48, you -- the average citizen, the committed activist
-- had a chance.
If you won, you'd created a law. Nowadays, of course, legislators who
didn't like it in the first place -- or they would have passed it
themselves, saving you all that time, money, and trouble -- just repeal
it or amend it to death. They resent the average citizen getting
directly involved in his or her own government -- who do you think you
If instead of creating a new law, you want to amend the Constitution,
you must do all of the above except get the second round of signatures
to bypass the Legislature. A proposed constitutional amendment, with its
tens of thousands of signatures, is sent to a Constitutional Convention,
where the 200 House and Senate legislators are required by Article 48 to
take a rollcall vote, up or down.
All constitutional amendments require voter approval to pass, and
legislators can also file one for Constitutional Convention debate; but
because they don't collect any signatures, they need the usual majority
to move it to the ballot. Petitioners, because they worked so hard, get
an advantage: you need only your thousands of signatures and 50 votes --
one-quarter of the legislators in the State House -- to move forward.
If you get this, you must wait two years for the next Constitutional
Convention, get 50 votes again, then you're finally on the ballot --
where a majority of voters is required to pass your petition after an
open, democratic ballot campaign. Then you win or you lose, but
democracy itself always wins.
This is the way it works, when everyone follows the Article 48 rules.
But when legislators violate their oath of office to uphold the
Constitution, and refuse to vote in the Constitutional Convention, your
petition just dies without voters ever expressing their opinion. This is
what is happening right now with two citizen petitions: Health
Care for Massachusetts, and the Marriage Amendment.
This is why proponents of both these petitions are asking the Supreme
Judicial Court to move their petitions forward to the ballot, bypassing
the Legislature when it denies their civil rights.
Many of us who have "been there" on various issues wish them well.
Barbara Anderson, executive director of Citizens for Limited
one of the 10 signers of the Health Care for Massachusetts lawsuit.
Barbara Anderson is executive director of Citizens
for Limited Taxation. Her column appears weekly in the Salem News and
Eagle Tribune, and often in the Newburyport Times, Gloucester Times, and
Lowell Sun; bi-weekly in the Tinytown Gazette; and occasionally in the
Providence (RI) Journal and other newspapers.