Initiative Petitions (Statewide)
An initiative petition is a way for citizens to propose binding laws and constitutional amendments for approval by the voters on the biennial statewide election ballot.
The first step in the process is for 10 voters to sign the petition containing the proposed law or constitutional amendment and to file it with the Attorney General's Office. For more information, visit the AG's Initiative Petition Instructions page.
Referendum Petitions (Statewide)
A referendum petition is a way for citizens to seek to repeal a law recently enacted by the state Legislature.
The first step in the process is for 10 registered voters to sign a petition seeking repeal of the law and to file it with the Secretary of the Commonwealth within 30 days after the law's enactment. The Secretary then asks the Attorney General to render an opinion on whether the law is of the type that is subject to a referendum. Certain types of laws are excluded from the referendum process.
For more information, view the Secretary of State's guide on Referendum Petitions.
Non-Binding Public Policy Questions (By District)
A non-binding public policy question is a question placed on the ballot by voter petition in state senatorial or representative district, asking whether the senator or representative from that district should be instructed to vote in favor of specific legislative action - usually a law or a resolution.
The first step in the process is for 1,200 registered voters in a state senatorial district or 200 registered voters in a state representative district to sign the petition specifying what legislative action is desired.
Coordinated efforts to place similar or identically-worded petitions on the ballots in multiple districts are permitted.
The Attorney General and Secretary of the Commonwealth are responsible for determining the final wording of eligible questions and will informally review draft questions at the sponsors' request.
The process is governed by M.G.L. c. 53, §§ 19 to 22. More information is available on the Secretary of State's Web guide on Public Policy Questions.
Local Ballot Questions (Cities and Towns)
There are numerous types of local (city or town) ballot questions in which the Attorney General ordinarily has no role. These questions include:
- An initiative in a city (M.G.L. c. 43, §§ 37-41 and 43-44), a referendum in a city (M.G.L. c. 43, § 42-44), or a referendum in a town with a representative town meeting (M.G.L. c. 43A § 10).
- Note: Some cities and towns have special provisions in their charters, setting up a different initiative and/or referendum process.
- A "Proposition 2½ " override, which specifies the wording of the various types of questions that may be placed on the ballot (M.G.L. c. 59, § 21C).
- The question of whether a city or town should accept the Community Preservation Act (M.G.L. c. 44B, § 3).
- See also the Secretary of State's publication, A Guide to Local Acceptance of the Community Preservation Act.
- Questions concerning whether to allow the sale of alcoholic beverages in a city or town (M.G.L. c. 138, §§ 11-11A).
- A nonbinding public opinion advisory question in a city or town (M.G.L. c. 53, §§ 18A-18B).
- An initiative in a city (M.G.L. c. 43, §§ 37-41 and 43-44), a referendum in a city (M.G.L. c. 43, § 42-44), or a referendum in a town with a representative town meeting (M.G.L. c. 43A § 10).
Contact your city or town clerk for more information on local ballot questions. For a guide to the campaign finance requirements that apply to local ballot questions, see the Office of Campaign and Political Finance’s Municipal Ballot Question Committees guide.
AG's Process for Initiative Petitions
Initiative petitions are filed with the Office of the Attorney General. The Attorney General must review and certify each petition for it to move through the rest of the process. The Attorney General also prepares a fair and concise summary for each petition that is certified. While Attorney General staff will informally review draft petition language before filing and offer suggestions, the Attorney General is not able to prepare a petition for you or assist you with advancing your petition once the certification process is complete.
Steps in the Initiative Petition Process
The initiative process is established by Amendment Article 48 of the Massachusetts Constitution as a way for citizens to propose laws and constitutional amendments for approval by the electorate. The basic steps for an initiative petition are:
- The initiative petition is signed by 10 voters and submitted to the Attorney General by the first Wednesday in August (August 2, 2017).
- The Attorney General determines (usually by the first Wednesday in September, i.e., September 6, 2017) whether the measure meets the requirements of Amendment Article 48.
- Measures certified by the Attorney General are filed with the Secretary of State.
- Thousands of additional voter signatures are gathered (this year, the requirement is 64,750) and filed with local election officials by late November and then with the Secretary of State by the first Wednesday in December.
- If signatures enough are gathered, the measure is sent to the Legislature in January of 2018.
- The Legislature either approves or disapproves the measure, proposes a substitute, or takes no action.
- Unless the Legislature has enacted the measure as filed before the first Wednesday in May of 2018, the proponents gather still more signatures (this year, the requirement is 10,792) by early July.
- If proponents gather enough additional signatures, the measure and any legislative substitute are submitted to the people at the next biennial state election (in this case, November of 2018).
The process is similar for constitutional amendments, but they must go through two successive sessions of the Legislature and must (unlike initiative petitions for laws) get the approval of 25% of the legislators in each session. Thus any proposed constitutional amendments submitted by August of 2017 would not appear on the ballot until November of 2020.
Filing a Petition
The first step in the process leading to the 2018 biennial statewide election ballot (for laws) or the 2020 ballot (for constitutional amendments) is for 10 registered voters to sign a petition containing the proposed law or constitutional amendment and to file it with the Attorney General by August 2, 2017. (It is possible, though unusual, to file a petition by August 1, 2018, for a law intended for the 2020 ballot or a constitutional amendment intended for the 2022 ballot.)
Review and Certification
The Attorney General must review all petitions filed to determine whether they meet certain constitutional requirements, including, in particular, whether a petition addresses any subjects that the Constitution excludes from the initiative process. The Attorney General's review process for petitions filed by August 2, 2017, should be completed by September 6, 2017.
If the petition is certified as meeting the constitutional requirements, the Attorney General also prepares a fair, concise summary of the proposed law (or constitutional amendment) to appear on petitions for gathering additional signatures and on the ballot.
The Attorney General's own policy views play no role in certification decisions. Rather, Amendment Article 48 requires the Attorney General to certify an initiative measure if the following requirements are met and to decline to certify the measure if the requirements are not met:
- the measure, including its title, must be in proper form for submission to the people;
- the measure must not be, either affirmatively or negatively, substantially the same as any measure which has been qualified for submission or submitted to the people at either of the two preceding biennial statewide elections; and
- the measure may contain only subjects that are related or mutually dependent and that are not excluded from the initiative process by Amendment Article 48.
The "excluded matters" requirement usually presents the most challenging legal issues. Based on the express words of Amendment Article 48, as approved by the voters in 1918, many important and controversial areas are simply off-limits to initiative petitions and petitions touching on these matters cannot be certified. This limitation on the "people's process" is often disappointing to petition proponents, but it was approved by the people themselves and is binding on the Attorney General. Under Amendment Article 48, a measure is excluded from the initiative petition process if it:
- relates to religion, religious practices or religious institutions;
- relates to the appointment, qualification, tenure, removal, recall or compensation of judges, or the reversal of a judicial decision, or the powers, creation or abolition of courts;
- is restricted in its operation to a particular town, city or other political division or to particular districts or localities of the Commonwealth;
- makes a specific appropriation of money from the treasury of the Commonwealth;
- relates to Amendment Article 18 (religious freedom; the "anti-aid" amendment) or that portion of Amendment Article 48 that specifically excludes matters from the operation of the initiative and referendum process; or
- is inconsistent with any of the following state constitutional rights:
- the right to receive compensation for private property appropriated to public use;
- the right of access to and protection in courts of justice;
- the right of trial by jury;
- protection from unreasonable search, unreasonable bail and the law martial;
- freedom of the press;
- freedom of speech;
- freedom of elections; and
- the right of peaceable assembly.
This list is exclusive. The Attorney General may not refuse to certify a proposed law on the ground that it clearly conflicts with some other constitutional guarantee not mentioned in Amendment Article 48, such as due process or equal protection. If such a proposed law appeared on the ballot and were approved by the voters, however, it could be challenged in court and could be invalidated.
Process for Considering Certification Issues
The Attorney General's review process is conducted in full cooperation with the sponsors of a proposed law as well as with any opponents of the law who believe it should not be certified. The Attorney General welcomes legal memoranda on whether a proposed law should be certified. Any such memorandum should also be sent to the sponsors or to any opponents who have identified themselves. The goal of this open process is to ensure that all issues are spotted and all views thoroughly considered before the Attorney General makes the certification decision. A list of all petitions that have been filed with the Attorney General, together with the names and telephone numbers of their sponsors, is usually available here by the close of business on the last day for filing petitions.
Summary Prepared by the Attorney General
If the Attorney General certifies a measure as conforming with these constitutional requirements, the Attorney General also prepares a fair and concise summary of it. The Secretary of the Commonwealth then places this summary on blanks for subsequent signatures. If the measure eventually appears on the ballot, the summary appears in the Information for Voters guide that the Secretary prepares and also on the election ballot. As is the case with certification issues, the Attorney General welcomes comments from both sponsors and opponents on how the summary of each proposed law should read.
Current Petitions Filed
To see a list of current petitions filed, along with the text of each petition, summaries of certified petitions, and explanatory letters responding to legal issues raised by members of the public regarding some petitions, see Current Petitions Filed.
Voter Information Materials
If a petition, as of April of an even-numbered year, remains eligible to appear on the November ballot, M.G.L. c. 54, § 53, requires the Attorney General and the Secretary of State to jointly prepare certain voter information materials. These materials are (1) a “ballot question title,” a short title that appears in the Information for Voters Guide published by the Secretary; and (2) “fair and neutral one sentence statements describing the effect of a yes or no vote,” which appear in the Information for Voters guide and on the November ballot. Drafting of these materials ordinarily begins by April 1 and is complete later in April. Interested parties’ comments are welcomed on drafts of these materials prepared by the Attorney General and Secretary. For more information or to participate in the process, please contact Juliana Rice, Deputy Chief, Government Bureau, at 617-963-2583 or send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Advance Notice of Filing/Review of Petitions
Contact us as far in advance as possible of the first-Wednesday-in-August filing deadline to:
- advise us of your intent to file, and
- request, at your option, advance review of a draft of your petition.
Once a petition has been signed and filed, it may not be changed (except for minor “perfecting amendments” that happen the following spring.) Therefore, we welcome the chance to review draft petitions on an informal, non-binding basis, and will make suggestions for changes to avoid certification problems if draft petitions are submitted prior to the filing deadline. The sooner the draft is submitted, the better; do not wait until the petition has been signed.
Contact: Deputy Government Bureau Chief Juliana Rice at (617) 963-2583, email email@example.com, fax (617) 727-5785. Email is preferred.
Signers of Original Petitions
It is preferable to have each signer of the petition put his or her initials on each page of the petition, to avoid any later question about whether the person signing actually saw the final version of the petition.
Get well more than 10 signatures on your original petition to guard against the possibility that a defect in one signer's certificate or voter registration status will invalidate the petition.
Voter Registration Certificates
Note especially the requirement (under M.G.L. c. 53, § 22A) that, for each original signer of a petition, there must be filed, with the petition, a certificate of voter registration from the board of registrars or election commission in the city or town in which the signer is a registered voter, showing the address at which the signer is registered. Each certificate of voter registration must be signed by at least three members of the board of registrars or election commission. Facsimile stamps of registrars' or election commissioners' signatures are acceptable.
The courts have not ruled on whether such certificates must be filed with the Attorney General, but to play it safe, file the certificates with the Attorney General when filing the petition itself, and in any event on or before the first Wednesday in August.
If your petition is certified, we will return the original certificates to you for filing with the Secretary of State.
Petition Title, Enacting Style, and Content
Although the courts have not yet ruled on whether an initiative petition must have a title, play it safe by including a title indicating that the petition is an initiative petition for a law (or for a constitutional amendment, where applicable) and making some mention of the subject matter of the proposed measure.
Also, if you are filing an initiative petition for a law (not a constitutional amendment), include the "enacting style." The "enacting style" is the phrase that goes after the title of your petition but before the text of the actual law itself. Under M.G.L. c. 4, § 3, "The enacting style of all measures submitted to the people in pursuance of an initiative petition for a law shall be: Be it enacted by the People, and by their authority." (There is no prescribed enacting style for a petition proposing a constitutional amendment.) The beginning of an initiative petition for a law should therefore look something like the following:
Initiative Petition for a Law Relative to [fill in subject, e.g., Taxes]
Be it enacted by the People, and by their authority:
[set forth full text of your proposed law here]
The initiative petition process is a vehicle for making laws, not for voting on statements of policy.
With that in mind, it is safest to avoid long statements describing “findings,” “statements of purpose," "declarations of public policy,” or the like as arguments in favor of your petition may be viewed as advocacy that could make your petition inappropriate to be certified for the ballot.
A printed and signed original petition must be filed in order for it to be valid. (See also paragraph 3(a) above regarding voter registration certificates).
You need not wait until the first Wednesday in August to file the final version of your petition with the Attorney General. Petitions will be accepted at any time, and early filings are encouraged, but do keep in mind that a petition may not be changed once it is officially filed. If you intend to file early, please call or email to let us know, so that we can make sure someone is available to receive your petition.
When you file your petition, we will give you a paper receipt for it. Please hold onto this. When you come back in September to pick up your certified petition, we will ask you for your receipt.
Filings are accepted at One Ashburton Place, 20th Floor, Boston, MA 02108-1598. You may file by mail, but we strongly discourage it, as we cannot accept late petitions, even if they were delayed in the mail.
All filings must be received by close of business, 5:00 P.M., on the first Wednesday in August.
For each petition you file, you will also be asked to complete an Initiative Petition Information Sheet. To expedite filing, we encourage you to complete this form in advance, rather than when you file your petition in person.
In addition to the formal paper filing described above, we request that you also provide us with an electronic version of your petition. This will greatly facilitate review by our office and public access to the text of your petition via our website.
Electronic versions should:
- be exact copies of the text of your petition and should also list, at the end, the names and addresses of at least 10 of the original signers;
- be submitted in Word format if possible;
- be filed, preferably by email to firstname.lastname@example.org, or on CD or thumbdrive (which will be returned to you), no later than the close of business, 5:00 P.M., on the first Wednesday in August;
- if at all possible, be accompanied by an electronic copy of the completed Initiative Petition Information Sheet. You may include the information sheet and corresponding petition in a single electronic document, with the information sheet at the beginning.
Public Participation in Initiative Petition Review
You or your organization may have an interest in one or more of the initiative petitions submitted to the Attorney General for certification pursuant to Amendment Article 48 of the Massachusetts Constitution.
The Attorney General must determine whether the proposed measure meets certain constitutional requirements: in particular, whether the measure addresses any subjects that the Constitution excludes from the initiative process. If the measure is certified, the Attorney General prepares a fair, concise summary of the measure to appear on petitions for gathering additional signatures and on the ballot. This process will be completed by the first Wednesday in September.
You are invited to participate in this process in either or both of the following ways:
- Submitting a memorandum of law by the Friday nine days after the petition-filing deadline, setting forth legal reasons why the Attorney General should or should not certify the measure as conforming to Amendment Article 48. Submissions must specifically address the legal requirements of Amendment Article 48: memoranda arguing against certification on policy grounds cannot be considered. Joint submissions by one or more organizations are encouraged; separate submissions making the same points are unnecessary.
- Reviewing and commenting upon a draft summary of the measure, to be circulated by this office later in August. You may also submit a proposed summary of the measure by the Friday nine days after the petition-filing deadline.
If you choose to submit a memorandum or draft summary, please simultaneously send a copy to the proponents' contact person, whose names are listed on the Initiative Petition Information Sheet attached to the petition. All memos will be available to interested members of the public. Electronic submissions are encouraged; please email to email@example.com or contact Juliana Rice, Deputy Chief, Government Bureau, at 617-963-2583.
If you wish to participate in any way, please fill out and return the Participant Form as indicated on the form. Participant Form - Initiative Petition Review Process (Fillable PDF) file size 1MB
Note: The Office of Campaign and Political Finance (OCPF) advises that contributions and expenditures made by any corporation, organization, association, or other group of persons for the purpose of promoting or opposing a potential ballot question are subject to the provisions of the campaign finance laws, M.G.L. c. 55.
For more information, refer to OCPF's Campaign Finance Guide for Ballot Question Committees, and Interpretive Bulletins 88-01 and 90-02; call OCPF at (617) 979-8300 or (800) 462-OCPF; or visit the OCPF website.
Below is a list of initiative petitions filed with the Attorney General's Office and the Attorney General's certification decisions.
To view a particular petition, including more information on how to contact its sponsors, and to view summaries of certified petitions and explanatory letters responding to legal issues raised by members of the public regarding some petitions, click on the Petition Number links below.
All links found under the Petition and Attorney General's Determination/Summary of Petition link to PDF documents.
The documents listed below are the electronically submitted versions of the initiative petitions filed with the Attorney General’s Office. Officially filed copies with signatures are available for review at the Attorney General’s Office. Please contact us if you would like to review these.