LAST WEEK, as one of the great rituals of democracy in America -- the filling of a Supreme Court vacancy -- was getting underway, democracy in Massachusetts was nearly getting mugged.
Massachusetts is one of 24 states in which voters can approve or reject laws at the polls, a power they have had since the initiative and referendum were added to the state Constitution in 1918. It is a power they have tended to exercise sparingly -- from 1990 to 2004, for example, only 14 ballot initiatives became law -- an average of less than one a year.
Why so few? In part because ballot measures are generally a last resort, something aggrieved citizens turn to only after lawmakers repeatedly ignore their pleas or the governor brushes them off or the bureaucracy refuses to budge or the hired lobbyists shoot down every attempt at reform.
But in part as well because lawmakers make it so difficult for proposed laws to reach the ballot. They require citizen petitions to be signed by tens of thousands of registered voters, allow proponents only a narrow window of time in which to collect those signatures, then make them get each signature verified by the clerk of the city or town in which the signer lives. They restrict the topics that a ballot question may address. They impose such stringent standards that a single stray mark on a petition -- a food stain, a highlighting -- can invalidate every signature on the page.
''Many legislators see public policy as their province and theirs alone," says Pam Wilmot of Common Cause, which promotes honest and accountable government. ''They get offended when voters want to have a say. Inside the State House there is fairly widespread resentment toward initiatives -- if not outright hostility."
For years, some Massachusetts Democrats have wanted to raise the ballot-access hurdles even higher -- so high that they would just about end citizen initiatives once and for all. Last week they almost pulled it off.
By a 12-1 vote, the Legislature's Election Laws Committee reported out a bill that would have banned ballot campaigners from paying petition-circulators by the signature and required circulators to swear that each name was signed in their presence and by the voter named -- poison pills, given the number of signatures needed and the short time in which to assemble them. Worse yet, the bill would have obligated the secretary of state to post signers' names and addresses on the Internet -- the better for opponents to browbeat or deceive them into recanting their support.
''Make no mistake about it," said Chip Ford, co-director of Citizens for Limited Taxation, which has conducted several initiative campaigns over the years. ''This is war."
He wasn't the only one who thought so. Across the political spectrum, the bill was seen as an underhanded attempt to permanently cripple the public's right to self-government. In addition to CLT, it was condemned by Common Cause, the Massachusetts Family Institute, and the Massachusetts Public Interest Research Group, by the state's Republican governor, Mitt Romney, and by its Democratic secretary of state, William Galvin.
Such ideological diversity reflects the fact that the power to adopt or repeal laws by ballot is neither liberal nor conservative. It is democratic. It can be used to lower taxes or raise them, to ban racial preferences or impose them, to endorse the death penalty or oppose it. Massachusetts voters understand that in a system rigged to make legislators all but untouchable, the initiative and referendum are a vital check and balance. Legislators understand it too. That is why they want so badly to eviscerate them.
Sad to say, the initiative process in the Bay State may be nearly dead anyway. It has become almost routine for the Massachusetts Legislature to countermand voter-approved laws it dislikes, such as the tax deduction for charitable donations, the ''Clean Elections" campaign-finance measure, or the rollback of the income tax rate to 5 percent. All three were enacted by decisive majorities, but lawmakers treated them as suggestions they were free to disregard. In two other cases, lawmakers derailed proposed amendments that were headed for the ballot by refusing to follow the procedures spelled out in the state Constitution.
''For 20 years I preached to the students of Princeton that the referendum . . . was bosh," said Woodrow Wilson, a one-time political science professor. ''I have since investigated and I want to apologize to those students." Far from being ''bosh," he had come to realize, the right to let voters decide the fate of a law is the ''safeguard of politics." In Massachusetts last week, that safeguard almost came to an end. Luckily, the plot was exposed. But it's only a matter of time before the plotters try again.
Jeff Jacoby's e-mail address is email@example.com.