Special interest groups and some Colorado politicians have crafted a constitutional amendment, Amendment 71, that masquerades as an election reform proposal but really amounts to an attack on the voting rights of the citizenry. If approved, it will disable future efforts to advance animal welfare and conservation reforms in Colorado through the initiative process. It should be lumped into the same category as other constitutional amendments being promoted by special interest groups arrayed against us — measures like the outrageous State Question 777, which seeks to create a “right to farm” in Oklahoma and prevent any future local or state regulations to govern agricultural practices.
For years, our opponents have tried to make the ballot initiative process unworkable, either by increasing signature gathering requirements to make it impossible to qualify a measure for the ballot or by creating a supermajority standard for passage that is virtually impossible to reach. In Utah, for example, the trophy hunting lobby and the trappers some years ago did succeed in requiring a two-thirds vote of the people to pass any wildlife protection measure; but, we defeated similar measures in Alaska and Arizona. In Oklahoma, also some years ago, we defeated a measure to double the number of signatures needed for an animal welfare measure.
Amendment 71 combines the worst elements of these measures – by adding in a distribution requirement for signature gathering (stipulating that a petition drive draw a substantial number of signatures from every state senate district) and requiring a supermajority standard for passing a constitutional amendment (55 percent).
Amendment 71 would make it virtually impossible for grassroots groups like The HSUS to qualify and pass any future constitutional ballot measures to help animals. In fact, one big reason that agribusiness interests and the trapping lobby are pushing for Amendment 71 is because we banned the use of steel-jawed leghold traps and snares in the state 20 years ago through a constitutional amendment. They’ve been wanting to overturn that ballot measure ever since, and Amendment 71 is their latest maneuver to go down that path.
If voters adopt Amendment 71, the only entities that could qualify a constitutional ballot measure would be monied interests who could hire signature gatherers and pay for them to get signatures in every corner of the state. It’s documented in the campaign finance reports for the Yes on 71 campaign that the oil and gas industry is funding the measure to the tune of millions of dollars, and the state’s Democratic governor is helping to front for them. They don’t want to see a ballot initiative to restrict fracking in the state. But the factory farming industry and the trapping lobby are also pushing the measure. They don’t want The HSUS and other animal welfare groups to advance a ballot measure in the state, and this is their way of getting there.
Normally, we have no quarrels with advancing a citizen initiative to amend a statute (as compared to a constitutional amendment). But when we advanced a ballot measure in Colorado more than two decades ago to stop spring bear hunting and the unsporting and reckless practices of bear baiting and hounding, lawmakers immediately tried to overturn it, even though we got an astonishing 70 percent of the vote. Still, some lawmakers aligned with the trophy hunting and agribusiness industry, and defying the mandate of the voters in their own districts, tried to overturn it. That’s why, when we took on commercial trapping with steel-jawed traps and snares four years later, we opted for a constitutional amendment, so we could protect against a knee-jerk, ideologically based override effort by lawmakers. And to top it off we continue to see the legislature year after year – and as recently as this past session – try to overturn the ban on spring bear hunting and reckless methods to kill bears.
If it’s okay for a politician to be elected with a simple majority or even a plurality, it’s okay for an initiative to be approved by a simple majority – rather than a supermajority. Many of the biggest gains in the movement – along with important gains for conservation, voting rights, taxpayer rights, and so many other important civil society reforms – have come through the ballot initiative process. In fact, a women’s suffrage constitutional amendment passed in Colorado with 54.7 percent of the vote in the early part of the 20th century. If Amendment 71 had been in place,that voting rights measure for women would have been defeated. We must protect this process if we want to protect our ability to advance reforms.
There is a growing left-center-right coalition opposing Amendment 71, from the American Civil Liberties Union, Common Cause, and NARAL on the left to the Independence Institute, Colorado Shooting Association, and Colorado Right-to-Life on the right. They all care about the erosion of citizen power. Many of the state’s leading papers have also panned the measure:
“Paying for a signature gathering effort in 35 districts across the state, and defending signature challenges in all of those districts, would easily render the cost of presenting a ballot unaffordable to all but the wealthiest of campaigns,” wrote the Denver Post. “Amendment 71 would only undermine the critical power of untouchable legislation held by voters to protect themselves from partisan scams. This is no time to surrender that power…only questions asked by the oil industry and big interests, such as those funded by the Koch Brothers, big labor unions and others, would ever see Election Day…,” opined the Aurora Daily Sentinel. The Greeley Tribune wrote: “…the backers of Amendment 71 haven’t applied these new, tougher standards to themselves. They could have easily written into the language of this measure that for it to take effect it would need at least 55 percent of the vote. They didn’t. Nor did they reach their own bar for signature gathering … it’s likely the only groups that could afford to reach such a high bar are those funded by out-of-state special interest groups that want to use Colorado for one of their pet projects.” And the Boulder Daily Camera said, “Adoption of Amendment 71 would allow the oil and gas industry to checkmate Colorado environmental interests… Aside from civil disobedience, the only remaining alternative for community and environmental groups is pursuing the initiative process to win back local control over land-use decisions.”
Amendment 71 is a power grab. Let’s defeat it, and give them a real lesson on direct democracy.