Opinion: Direct democracy a crucial tool in protecting animals

California is celebrating a milestone: the 100th birthday of the initiative and referenda process. The Humane Society of the United States actively works to defend this process of direct democracy born in the Progressive Era, given that it has been used to drive vital social reforms, including those protecting animals.

The initiative process’ fundamental premise is that power rests with the people. When powerful, moneyed protectors of the status quo block popular reforms, this safety valve is built into the state constitution. It’s not a perfect process, but ultimately it strengthens democracy, enhances engagement in civic activity, keeps government more honest and transparent, and produces important public policies. Initiatives are a non-partisan process and have been used by people and groups from all across the political spectrum.

To be clear, The Humane Society of the United States supports representative government and it’s always our preference to work with state lawmakers. But when elected lawmakers fail to honor the popular will, we take our message directly to voters here and elsewhere.

One classic example was our campaign to combat cockfighting. In Arizona, Missouri, and Oklahoma, state lawmakers refused to act in the face of this cruel bloodsport. We tried for years in each of these Legislatures before turning to the initiative. In each case, voters in these states approved cockfighting prohibitions by wide margins.

In California, entrenched special interests have stymied progress in the Legislature on popular reforms. In 1990, citizens here passed a measure to prevent the trophy hunting of mountain lions. It was a jolt to the trophy-hunting camp. After six years of grumbling and scare-mongering about lion attacks on people, state lawmakers and the NRA joined to refer a deceptively worded measure to the ballot to reverse the original public vote. But the electorate saw through the deception and handed the trophy-hunting lobby an even more lopsided defeat.

Just two years later, voters approved a ban against cruel and indiscriminate steel-jawed leg-hold traps and two kinds of poisons used to kill predators – showing the wildlife management establishment that its practices and policies were out of step with public sentiment. On the same ballot, voters outlawed the slaughter of horses for human consumption, kick-starting a national movement to end horse slaughter in America.

And three years ago, California voters sent shockwaves through the agribusiness establishment by overwhelmingly approving Proposition 2. That measure took aim at extreme confinement of veal calves, breeding sows, and laying hens in the nation’s top agricultural state. Prop. 2 rolled up more “Yes” votes than any initiative in California history, showing the agribusiness lobby that people care about humane treatment of all animals, including those raised for food. It won in 47 of 58 counties, including many rural and agricultural counties, demonstrating that concern for animals is not just an urban or suburban issue.

With this series of wins providing a good barometer of public sentiment, and with the Prop. 2 vote fresh in their minds, lawmakers have passed a raft of animal protection measures in the last three years – most with strong bipartisan support. They’ve enacted thirty HSUS-backed bills and resolutions and rejected six bills inimical to animals’ interests.

Of the 15 or so bills we weighed in on this year in Sacramento, three related to changing or reforming the initiative process itself. Gov. Brown was right to veto SB 168 as it would have made qualifying a ballot measure more difficult, especially for grassroots organizations.

On the other hand, we supported two other bills this year that struck the right balance between reform and access. Gov. Brown signed one and unfortunately vetoed the other.
He signed SB 202, which shifts all ballot propositions to the general election ballots held in November of even years. Voter turnout is traditionally low during special or primary elections, and we think it’s better for more citizens to weigh in on the major issues of the day.

He vetoed AB 651, which would have required professional petition-gathering firms to train paid gatherers in relevant election law and barred anyone convicted of petition-related fraud from gathering signatures. We supported this bill because we want to protect the integrity of the initiative process.

A healthy and accessible initiative ballot box is important to the animal protection movement. So here’s to another century of grassroots democracy in action.