When Americans go to the polls on Election Day, Nov. 5, in addition to deciding control of the U.S. Senate and House and a number of state governorships, voters in several jurisdictions also must vote on animal protection initiatives.
"Organizations that have encountered a logjam in state legislatures where special interest lobbyists hold sway have turned to the initiatives process and they have done well on the ballot," Dane Waters, of the Initiative and Referendum Institute in Washington, told UPI's Animal Tales. "Animal protection emerged in the 1990s as a dominant issue on statewide ballots."
Some animal protection organizations turned to the initiative process as an outgrowth of the term limits initiative and they have been successful in multiple initiatives in multiple states, Waters said.
"Ballot initiatives are not easy. They take hundreds of thousands of signatures and obtaining them by hundreds of volunteers is not easy, but it gives people a say on issues where legislation has been stymied," said Waters.
According to the Ballot Initiative Strategy Center, also in Washington, the animal protection initiatives could boost voter turnout.
"Particularly this year, as most media and political attention is focused on foreign policy, progressive initiatives are forcing debate on critical domestic issues, which may benefit Democrats," said Kristina Wilfore, BISC's executive director.
"The disparity in turnout rates between the 24 initiative and non-initiative states has been increasing over time," Wilfore said. It is "estimated at 7 percent to 9 percent higher in midterm elections and 3 percent to 4.5 percent higher in presidential elections in the 1990s."
After a three-year battle in Oklahoma, State Question 687, an initiative to outlaw cockfighting, was placed on the ballot by retiring Republican Gov. Frank Keating.
"The governor calls cockfighting in Oklahoma 'embarrassing to the state,' cruel and promotes illegal gambling -- he favors the ban," Dan Mahoney, Keating's spokesman, told UPI's Animal Tales.
According to Wayne Pacelle, senior vice president of the Humane Society of the United States, cockfighting is a relic of another era and illegal in 47 states -- it currently is legal only in Oklahoma, New Mexico and Louisiana.
"It's a huge business in Oklahoma, with 42 major pits, some with arena-style seating and concessions, many near the border to attract people from other states," Pacelle told UPI. "It's big business and there is small but very influential lobby that has thwarted the banning of cockfighting for decades."
Even if the Oklahoma ban prevails on Election Day, Pacelle still estimates there are about 40,000 active dog and cockfighting operations nationwide.
"We find illegal cockfighting pits in cities, suburbs and rural area and some ethnic groups have strong cockfighting ties," he said. "The roosters are bred for aggression, they are pumped with stimulants and blood-clotting drugs and small razor-sharp knives are attached to their claws so the birds are fighting with weapons -- in a typical event from 100 to 150 roosters are killed."
According to Keating, the initiative petition calling for a vote of the people on this matter met a long series of court tests. "Only in a tiny handful of locations outside of the third world where this activity is legal," he said in a statement.
In 1999, the Oklahoma Coalition Against Cockfighting had filed 100,000 signatures to get the ban on cockfighting on the ballot -- 70,000 signatures were required. However, those opposed to the ban challenged the signatures in a court battle that lasted two years. In the end, the State Supreme Court ruled that 90,000 of the signatures were valid.
Opponents of the measure have said they think the ban is the first step in a series of actions that could restrict hunting, fishing and rodeos. Oklahoma state Sen. Frank Shurden, a Democrat, is against the cockfighting ban.
"I don't believe in putting people in a penitentiary for raising chickens, we don't have room for them, we don't need another non-violent felony filling prisons," Shurden told UPI's Animal Tales. "I don't go to cockfights but I'm not in favor of slowly eroding our freedoms because we don't agree with someone. That's like Nazi Germany. I hope it's not passed."
The initiative would make it a felony to hold cockfights or to own birds or equipment for the purpose of cockfighting as well as make it a misdemeanor to be a deliberate spectator of cockfighting.
As a reaction to the cockfighting initiative, Shurden initiated State Question 698 that requires initiative backers to obtain signatures from registered voters equal to 15 percent of the total number of voters in the previous election, more than doubling the current requirement of 8 percent.
"The game fowl industry has an important impact on the economy of Oklahoma -- $100 million worth," Harland Stonecipher, chairman of the Oklahoma Wildlife Conservation said in a commercial paid for by Oklahomans for Freedom of Choice. "We should encourage industry to come to Oklahoma. State Question 687 will make criminals of an entire industry. We should all vote 'No' Nov. 5."
In Arkansas, voters will decide whether to toughen penalties for extreme acts of animal cruelty, such as setting dogs on fire, stabbing horses or engaging in other particularly malicious forms of animal cruelty. Initiated Act 1 would make extreme animal cruelty a class D felony. It would also amend the anti-dogfighting law to apply to cockfighting.
In Florida, voters are being asked to choose whether pigs must stay in 2-foot-by-7-foot cages throughout pregnancy.
Proponents of the measure said the crates are so small that confined pigs cannot even turn around, and as a result the pigs -- whose intelligence is thought to rival dogs -- suffer from a variety of physical and psychological ailments.
Opponents of the ballot measure counter that the crates make it easier to feed and care for the pigs, because in pens one pig may dominate feeding.
Florida is a not a large swine-producing state, but activists persuaded almost 700,000 voters to sign petitions for the ballot initiative and some think the vote will be a preemptive strike against swine farms in other southern states from moving into the Sunshine State.
In Georgia, Amendment 6, referred to the ballot by the state Legislature, would establish a program to curtail dog and cat overpopulation and thereby reduce the number of animals euthanized by animal shelters. The program, which would fund subsidized spay/neuter programs across the state, would be paid for by the voluntary purchase of special license plates.