and the
Citizens Economic Research Foundation

Barbara's Column
December #4

A vote for democracy
by Barbara Anderson

The Boston Globe
Saturday, December 23, 2006

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 Legislature.

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 help you.

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 ballot.

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 are?

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 Taxation, is 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.