In Blow to School Vouchers,
SJC Rules Against Ballot Signatures
JULY 16, 1999 ... EJB ... In a blow to the school voucher movement,
the state's highest court ruled today against a coalition seeking to repeal by ballot
initiative the constitutional prohibition against giving public money to private or
The Coalition for Parental Choice in Education mounted a ballot
campaign last year to repeal the anti-aid amendment of the state Constitution. Secretary
of State William Galvin tossed out 3,507 signatures because the sheets they were on had
extraneous markings - pen doodles, names of towns, highlighting -- in the margins. That
left the coalition 1,675 short of the ballot.
The coalition brought suit against Galvin, arguing that the markings
were innocuous and did not influence people's decisions about whether to sign the
petition. The secretary of state's office argued that marked-up petitions should be
subject to a case-by-case analysis by the state Ballot Law Commission to determine whether
a mark had an undue influence.
In a ruling written by SJC Justice Ruth Abrams and issued this
morning, the high court turned down both parties' arguments and upheld a "bright
line" ruling it made last year in a similar case.
"Like ballot forms and the voting booth, petition forms are thus
protected as space free from the tumult and bias of political sloganeering," Abrams
wrote today, quoting from the 1998 case.
The court noted that the Legislature has instructed that signatures
can only be collected on "exact copies" of petition blanks from the secretary of
state. "Exact copy means exact copy," Abrams wrote. "The statute does not
permit any alternations of forms, whether by copying machine, petition circulator or
The lawsuit's proponents blasted the ruling as the "Dredd Scott
of the school choice movement," refering to the Supreme Court ruling stating that
Supreme Court ruling upholding slavery.
Boston attorney Michael Gilleran, who brought the suit on behalf of
the first ten signers of the petition, predicted that only paid signature gatherers would
be able to meet the "pristine petition" burden. He also said opponents would
attempt to sabotage petitions by pretending to be signers and marking up the margins.
"Now you've got to have professional signature gatherers,
walking around with security guards, holding the petitions in glass bubbles,"
Gilleran said. "What'll happen is that for the more ordinary, non-exceptional,
signature-gathering efforts, many of those will fail because their margins (for required
signatures) will be thin. They will be stomped on by this ruling."
Secretary Galvin was also displeased, warning that activists will be
faced with gathering a "great surplus" of signatures and will have a harder time
bringing issues to the ballot. Like the backers of the lawsuit, Galvin said compliance
with the ruling would require more professionally trained petition circulators.
"It's somewhat disappointing," he said. "In the short
term, with petition filings coming up next month, it probably means that for 2000, we're
looking at this being an operable rule and it probably means fewer petitions getting on
The ruling could also have ramifications for other
signature-gathering efforts such as political candidate nomination papers, Galvin said.
The SJC raised that possibility in a footnote of the ruling, but didn't resolve the
"I suspect it would create much more difficulty for candidates
to get on the ballot," Galvin said, adding that litigation will "certainly"
follow. "I think that's probably as significant as the ruling on petitions."
Per order of another SJC footnote, Galvin said he's considering
redesigning the format of petition forms, perhaps to include a box where people could
write phone numbers or other non-advocacy information. "I have to research it,"
he said. "It's unclear from the footnote what the court's inviting me to do."
The Massachusetts Teachers Association said in a statement that it
was "extremely pleased" with the ruling. In oral and written arguments before
the court, lawyers for the MTA disagreed with both the process of the signature gathering
and the merits of the petition.
"Allowing public tax dollars to be spent on sending children to
private and parochial schools would severely drain resources away from public
education," said MTA President Stephen Gorrie. "It would also tear down the
separation between church and state -- a separation with a long and honorable history in