Basic Steps to
Undertake an Initiative Campaign
I&R Constitutional and Statutory Provisions
Cartoon on the Referendum Process in Massachusetts
Secretary of State's Initiative and Referendum Historical Information
Populist Party adopted a resolution in 1895 calling for statewide initiative and
referendum. In 1900, State Representative Henry Stirling introduced one of the
first I&R proposals; Socialist State Representative James Carey introduced
another in 1901. In 1905, Mrs. Ella 0. Marshall organized the Massachusetts
Referendum League to push for I&R, but results were slow to come.
After a decade of unsuccessful attempts, the
Massachusetts Direct Legislation League hired Henry Stirling to organize support
for I&R throughout the state. The Progressive and Democratic parties, by now
staunch supporters of I&R, used this issue with some success against the
Republicans in the electoral campaigns of 1912.
In 1913 the legislature approved a bill establishing
a procedure for advisory initiatives to be placed on the ballot by voters in any
of the state's senatorial or representative districts; I&R advocates used the
procedure in 1914, 1915, and 1916 to get "straw votes" throughout the state
showing public support for I&R.
In 1915 Governor David I. Walsh, a Democrat who was
the first Irish Catholic elected to statewide office in Massachusetts, formed
the Union for a Progressive Constitution to push for a state constitutional
convention to consider various reforms, with I&R as a priority. The legislature
passed a bill in 1916 authorizing such a convention, if the voters approved it -
which they did, in November 1916.
The convention met in 1917 and passed the I&R
amendment by a vote of 163 yeas, 125 nays, and 30 delegates not voting.
Conservative opposition to I&R, led by former state attorney general Albert E.
Pillsbury of Wellesley and railroad counsel Charles F. Choate of Southborough,
was strong enough to force numerous compromises in the final version:
compromises that even today make the Massachusetts initiative procedure the
nation's most cumbersome and complicated. Submitted to the voters for
ratification on November 5, 1918, the amendment passed by a narrow margin.
The first initiative to win voter approval was a
1920 measure defining cider and beer as non-intoxicating liquors, and thus
exempt from Prohibition. Other successful early initiatives included measures to
end the ban on Sunday sports events (1928), repeal the state's Prohibition law
(1930), reform candidate nominating procedures (1932), and regulate animal
On the 1948 ballot was a controversial initiative to
legalize contraceptives, which was opposed by the Catholic Church, and three
labor relations measures sponsored by employers and bitterly opposed by
organized labor: a "Right to Work" initiative, a law regulating strikes, and a
third measure regarding the election of union officers. The four initiatives
provoked an extraordinarily heavy Democratic turnout, which not only defeated
all the initiatives but also swept Republican incumbents out of office.
The Democrats gained a majority in Massachusetts'
lower house for the first time in the state's history, tipped the balance of
power in the senate, and ousted Republican Governor Robert Bradford. The
initiative that got the most favorable vote, though it still lost was on the
contraceptive issue: 43 percent of the electorate said "yes."
In 1964, voters passed an initiative statute
reducing the powers of the governor's Executive Council. The state's most famous
initiative was the tax cutting “Proposition 2 1/2.” Dog and cat lovers made
successful use of the initiative process in 1983 by proposing a measure to ban
research on these animals. The legislature, responding to an initiative petition
signed by a record 145,170 voters, passed the initiative in December of that
year, thus eliminating the need for it to go on the 1984 ballot. A 1986
initiative mandating cleanup of toxic waste dumps, sponsored by the
Massachusetts Public Interest Research Group (MassPIRG), became the most popular
initiative in the state's history, garnering 73 percent approval.
In 1994, a term limits initiative was adopted only
to have it thrown out several years later by the state supreme court. The court
ruled that term limits can only be imposed if the state constitution were
amended and since the term limits imposed in 1994 were done statutorily, they
In 1998, state voters adopted a campaign finance
reform initiative that called for the public funding of campaigns. However, the
state legislature, as of April 2002, had still refused to fund the initiative.
This state history is based on research found in
David Schmidt's book, Citizen Lawmakers: The Ballot Initiative Revolution.