State Sen. Stan Rosenberg (D-Amherst) and four state representatives have recently filed legislation to amend the ballot initiative process in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts.
If enacted, Rosenberg’s bill would require those proposing bills to gather double the amount of registered voter signatures than current requirements stipulate. Although the exact number of verified signatures needed for a ballot question to ultimately make its way to the polls fluctuates, in 2010 it was 66,593. Under Rosenberg’s proposed legislation, an initiative would require roughly 130,000 signatures to be approved. Ballot initiative bills are routinely proposed in the state legislature.
Other amendments to the process being floated in the House include requiring signature gatherers to wear buttons stating how much they are being paid, outlawing the practice of paying signature gatherers entirely and limiting individual contributions to ballot initiative campaigns to $500 per year.
The U.S. Supreme Court has ruled on some of these ballot initiative-related issues in the recent past. In the 1999 case “Victoria Buckley v. American Constitutional Law Foundation, Inc., et al,” it found that several signature-gathering laws in place in Colorado were in violation of individuals’ right to free speech under the First Amendment. Outlawing pay for signature-gathering and requiring gatherers to wear name badges were found unconstitutional in that same case. The Supreme Court also determined there was insufficient evidence to support the charge that paid signature gatherers are more likely to commit fraud than volunteers.
Senator Rosenberg said his chief goals for his ballot amendment are to curb the activities of out-of-state special interest groups, to reduce signature-gathering fraud and to “return [the referendum process] to the democratic grassroots movements.”
Rosenberg said he believes the Commonwealth’s ballot referendum process has been co-opted by out-of-state interests with financial stakes in Bay State law, and he hopes his legislation will place more power back in citizens’ hands.
“Massachusetts is a relatively small state which has been captured by special interests who have learned how to manipulate the ballot process,” he said.
He also noted that he feels the current initiative amendment process is somewhat anachronistic.
“The [voter ballot initiative] system is 100 years old,” he said.
In addition to increasing the number of signatures required for a proposal to reach a vote, the senator would also like penalties levied on corrupt gatherers and campaigns. Although he is not opposed to the practice of paying signature gatherers, he would like them, as well as firms paying them, to be required to register with the state.
The nonprofit Ballot Initiative Strategy Center (BISC) claims it has received numerous complaints in recent years from across the country regarding questionable signature gathering practices. On its website, BISC now ranks 24 “voter referendum” states using a report card system. States can be awarded a maximum of 21 points in categories such as “Greater Transparency (up to 4 points),” “Accountability (up to 6 points)” and “Oversight and Enforcement (up to 8 points).” In 2010 no state achieved “A” status by the institute’s standards. Colorado received the highest mark and the only “B.” Twelve states received “F’s” including Massachusetts, California, Utah and Florida.
Despite charges of escalating levels of fraud, relatively few petitions make it through the state’s current checks and reach a vote. Last year in Massachusetts, 25 ballot initiatives were approved to circulate. Of those, only five gathered enough signatures to reach the polls, and just three were ultimately on the ballot in November. One of the three, a question which would repeal the sales tax on alcohol, was approved by voters. Furthermore, only one case of major fraud regarding ballot initiatives is known to have occurred in Massachusetts in the last decade, according to the BISC.
In 2005, the anti-same sex marriage organization Massachusetts Family Institute hired Arno Political Consultants, which specializes in qualifying ballot initiatives nationwide, to gather signatures for a question proposing a gay marriage ban to go before voters. However, a signature collector working for APC was exposed for using the now illegal “bait-and-switch” tactic to lure voters. The college student who allegedly deceived voters reported at the time she could make up to $1,200 per day tricking voters into signing the petition to ban gay marriage by disguising it as an initiative to permit all grocery stores in the state to sell wine, according to a recent Boston Herald editorial on Rosenberg’s proposal.
Signature drive organizers hold that these situations are rare, and that the majority of signature gatherers are involved in ballot initiative campaigns because they are dedicated to the respective cause.
Associate director Chip Faulkner of the Massachusetts-based anti-tax group Citizens for Limited Taxation has coordinated at least seven signature drives throughout his career.
“I’ve been doing this for 30 years; I find very little evidence of fraud,” he said. “They’re making an issue out of a nonissue.”
Faulkner also disagreed that signature gatherers should have to register with the state. “Why should they? All they’re doing is holding a clipboard,” he said, mentioning that his group works with volunteer signature gatherers only.
Shane Cronin can be reached at [email protected]