Time to Start Working on 2018 Ballot Questions

It may feel like the dust has yet to settle on the 2016 Election, but the first important deadlines for the 2018 Election are just around the corner.  In Massachusetts, proposed Initiative Petitions for the November 2018 ballot must be submitted to the Massachusetts Attorney General’s Office (AGO) on or before Wednesday, August 2, 2017.

Initiative petitions provide issue advocates with a means of passing policy proposals that may have stalled in the Legislature.  Over the past few years alone, Initiative Petitions in Massachusetts have addressed major issues including charter schools, taxes, animal welfare, and recreational and medical marijuana.  Moreover, ballot questions can motivate activists and help drive voter turnout on election day, influencing other high-profile races.

Placing a policy proposal on the ballot is a straightforward process, but not an easy one, making a strong plan and strategy essential.  There are several required steps to placing an Initiative Petition on the ballot. In any given year, the majority of proposed Initiative Petitions fail to meet one of the requirements and never make it to the ballot. There are significant opportunities for public participation at each step of the process, so both proponents and opponents need to be prepared to take action early.

As individuals and organizations start to think about potential Initiative Petitions for the November 2018 ballot, here are some of the dates to keep in mind:

  • Before the August 2, 2017: Proponents of an Initiative Petition can submit their draft petitions on a non-binding basis to the AGO for review. Drafters of a petition should take advantage of this opportunity, and submit petitions as soon as possible.
  • August 2, 2017: This is the deadline for Proponents to submit their proposed law with the signatures of at least ten registered voters. Proponents must submit their petition with a certificate of voter registration from the board of registrars or election commissioner in the city or town in which each signer is registered to vote.
  • Mid-August 2017: Proponents and opponents of proposed initiatives are invited to submit memorandums of law to the AGO setting forth the reasons why the AGO should or should not certify the measure. The AGO reviews all proposed Initiative Petitions, but review is limited to whether a petition meets the constitutional requirements set forth in Amendment Article 48 of the Massachusetts Constitution.  The Attorney General’s own policy preferences are not permitted to play a role in the certification decision.
  • Before September 6, 2017: The AGO will certify whether or not a proposed measure meets the constitutional requirements.
  • September 20, 2017 – November 22, 2017: After a petition has been certified, proponents have a relatively short window — until November 22, 2017 — to collect and file signatures of registered voters with local registrars for certification. They then have until December 6, 2017 to file those certified signatures with the Secretary of the Commonwealth.   Proponents must collect the certified signatures of 64,750 voters.
  • February 1, 2018: The Attorney General’s decision to certify or not certify a proposed initiative petition can be challenged directly before the Supreme Judicial Court (SJC). The AGO will generally facilitate the filing and agree to relevant facts, allowing the SJC to hear the case quickly and render a speedy decision.  As we discussed in an earlier post, the SJC strongly encourages that all legal challenges to AGO certification decisions be filed by February 1, 2018.
  • May 1, 2018: Any petition that has provided the necessary number of certified signatures, is sent to the Legislature for consideration. The Legislature is given the opportunity to enact the petition prior in order to eliminate the need to place the issue on the ballot. The deadline for the Legislature to enact a proposed petition is May 1, 2018.
  • June 19, 2018: In addition to the signatures already collected, proponents must collect an additional 10,792 signatures in order to place the Initiative Petition on the ballot. These additional signatures must be filed with local registrars by June 19, 2018, and proponents must file the certified signatures with the Secretary of the Commonwealth by July 3, 2018.
  • November 6, 2018: Election Day.

Our team at Foley Hoag LLP has significant experience assisting both ballot question proponents and opponents in navigating this process — from drafting and reviewing petitions to successfully challenging certification decisions at the SJC.  We will be closely monitoring the ballot question process.  We encourage you to check back for additional updates on what you can expect as we approach Election Day 2018.

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