Monday, March 15, 2021

By Brad Pyle

The freedom and autonomy of Americans in several states to use the ballot and referendum process to express their political will and advance their public policy goals is under renewed threat, in the form of proposed restrictions on citizen-sponsored ballot measures. Such attacks seek variously to raise vote thresholds, limit the scope of ballot measures, minimize the number of permissible referenda in an election cycle, place geographic restrictions on signatures, set expiration dates on voter-approved initiatives, or require that measures be approved by a state legislature before taking effect.

The legislators behind these cynical maneuvers are trying to undo a remarkable instrument of American governance, one that has endured for well over a century in our democratic republic. Progressive-era political reformers pushed for the ballot or referendum process along with other measures (including universal suffrage, direct voting for senators and the option to recall elected officials) designed to strengthen government by the people. In the intervening years, the ballot or referendum option has been used by Americans from all walks of life.

Animal protection is one of many good causes that American voters have affirmed via ballot or referendum initiatives. Sometimes, in the course of our work, when individual legislators, committee chairs, subcommittees, state legislatures or city councils have placed roadblocks in our path, we and our partners have turned to this form of direct democracy to advance animal protection measures. In more than a dozen states, citizens have a right to place referendums on the ballot, giving voters a direct and final say on the passage of animal welfare laws. Often, this has given us a chance to overcome determined campaigns by elected officials and vested interests to frustrate the advance of our legislative and policy goals through the normal channels of government. As a result, the ballot or referendum process has accounted for some of the most significant animal protection wins of the modern era.

As recently as 2018, HSLF played a critical role in the approval of two consequential state ballot measures. In the first, Florida citizens overwhelmingly voted to end greyhound racing, a miserable activity in which dogs suffer broken bones and deaths on the tracks. This was a big win because Florida was home to 11 of the remaining 17 greyhound racing tracks in the country. 

In the second, Californians resoundingly said “YES!” to Proposition 12, ushering in the strongest farm animal protection law in the world. Proposition 12 built on another ballot measure approved by California voters in 2008, to ensure that pork, eggs, and veal produced or sold in the California marketplace come from facilities that do not confine animals in tiny, restrictive cages or crates for their entire lives.

Between 1990 and 2018, animal protection advocates squared off against factory farming corporations, trophy hunters, puppy millers and other animal-use industries in 58 statewide ballot measure campaigns, winning 40 of them. These victories reflected the full range of the animal welfare policy agenda—including cracking down on animal cruelty, improving conditions on factory farms, protecting endangered species, and more.

That record of success makes it clear why legislators and special interest groups tied to agribusiness, puppy mills, mink farming, or consumptive uses of wildlife have been among the most motivated supporters and sponsors of efforts to curtail, or cripple, the ballot or referendum in recent years.

These attacks on citizen lawmaking are not random occurrences, but the result of a coordinated attack on direct democracy. An Arizona lawmaker is pressing to increase the share of the vote needed to pass a ballot measure from 50% to 60%. The state legislature in Missouri is working to dilute the power of ballot measures by increasing the vote share required for passage, raising signature requirements, and authorizing the legislature to vet and reject any proposed ballot measure. Michiganders are suing to strike down a law pushed through by legislators in a 2018 lame-duck session that makes it harder to gather signatures for a citizen petition drive. This law sets a 15% cap on how many signatures can be submitted from a congressional district.

Given our reliance on the democratic process to sustain and advance—and our faith in it—the Humane Society Legislative Fund has a natural suspicion of efforts to limit the rights of voters in any manner. We are committed to the preservation and use of the ballot or referendum in American political life and will continue to defend it at every turn. We hope that you will, too.

Brad Pyle is political director of the Humane Society Legislative Fund.