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The initiative petition process

Understand how initiative petitions are reviewed and certified.

Table of Contents

Steps in the initiative petition process

The process is established by Amendment Article 48 of the Massachusetts Constitution as a way for people to propose laws and constitutional amendments for approval by voters.

Initiative petitions first must be prepared by the petitioner, signed by at least 10 registered voters, and submitted to the Attorney General’s Office by the first Wednesday in August.  Generally, initiative petitions are filed in odd-numbered years to appear on the ballot at the next statewide biennial election (held on even-numbered years). 

The Attorney General’s Office then determines if the petition meets the state’s constitutional requirements and can be certified and usually announces which petitions are certified by the first Wednesday in September. Petitions certified by the Attorney General’s Office may then be filed with the Secretary of State’s Office.

Petitioners must collect 64,750 signatures for their petition and file collected signatures with local election officials for certification 14 days before the first Wednesday in December. Signed petitions must then be filed with the Secretary of State’s Office by the first Wednesday in December.

If enough signatures are collected, the measure is then sent to the Legislature in January of the next year. The Legislature can pass the measure, propose a substitute, or take no action.

If the Legislature does not pass the measure as filed before the first Wednesday in May, the petitioner must then collect 10,792 more signatures and file them with local election officials for certification 14 days before the first Wednesday in July and with the Secretary by the first Wednesday in July. After enough signatures are filed, the measure is then placed on the ballot for the next statewide general election.

Perfecting amendments for initiative petitions

A majority of the first 10 signers of the measure can propose “perfecting amendments” if the Legislature does not pass the proposed law before the first Wednesday in May. These amendments are subject to certification by the Attorney General’s Office and cannot change the substance of the measure. After certification, perfecting amendments must be filed with the Secretary of State’s Office by the first Wednesday in June. Then the petitioner must collect the remaining 10,792 signatures and file them with local election officials for certification 14 days before the first Wednesday in July. The amended measure is then placed on the ballot of the next statewide general election

Differences in the petition process for constitutional amendments

The initiative petition process is similar for constitutional amendments, but petitions must go through two sessions of the Legislature and must be approved by 25% of the legislators in each session. Proposed constitutional amendments do not require further signatures after being passed by the Legislature.

For example, a proposed constitutional amendment submitted in August of 2017 would have to be approved by 25% of legislators in 2018 and 2019 before appearing on the ballot in November 2020.

Submitting referendum petitions

Referendum petitions to repeal a law must be submitted to the Secretary of State’s Office within 30 days of the law going into effect. The Secretary of State’s Office generally will ask the Attorney General’s Office to determine if the law can be subject to a referendum. Certain types of laws are excluded from the referendum process. For more information, see the Secretary of State's Guide to Statewide Ballot Questions.

The review process at the Attorney General's Office

The Attorney General’s Office’s review process is conducted in cooperation with petitioners as well as with any opponents of the proposed measure. The Attorney General’s Office welcomes legal memoranda on whether a petition meets the constitutional requirements for certification.

This open review process makes sure that any issues are identified and all views are thoroughly considered before a certification decision is made. A list of all petitions filed with the Attorney General’s Office and the names and contact information of petitioners is made available after the petitions are received.

Voter information materials

Massachusetts law requires that the Attorney General’s Office and the Secretary of State’s Office prepare certain voter information materials for initiative petitions that are eligible to appear on the November biennial statewide election ballot:

  • A ballot question title that will appear in the “Information for Voters Guide” published by the Secretary of State’s Office.
  • Fair and neutral one-sentence statements that describe the effect of a “yes” or “no” vote on the petition, to appear in the “Information for Voters Guide” and on the November ballot.

Voter information materials are drafted in the spring of even-numbered years. People and organizations interested in commenting on draft materials may reach the Attorney General’s Office at 617-963-2583 or ballotquestions@state.ma.us.

Campaign finance law

The Office of Campaign and Political Finance (OCPF) advises that contributions and expenditures made by any corporation, organizations, association, or other group of people for the purpose of promoting or opposing a potential ballot question are subject to the provisions of campaign finance laws.

For more information, refer to OCPF’s Campaign Finance Guide for Ballot Question Committees, and interpretive bulletins for clarification on campaign finance laws. You can also call the OCPF at 617-979-8300 or 800-462-OCPF.

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