When lawmakers take an oath to “faithfully discharge the duties” of their office, they shouldn’t play games with the voters who put them there in the first place.
Michigan lawmakers are trying to keep voters from weighing in on the fate of their state's small, recovering population of wolves. Photo: Alamy
About half of the states have constitutional provisions to provide for citizen lawmaking, allowing voters to initiate legislation by petition, and to nullify acts of the legislatures in their states through a similar process. Both processes require the collection of a large number of signatures of registered voters by citizens within a short, definite time frame, and the mandate that voters decide the issues by majority vote. The initiative and referendum process have helped the causes of direct election of U.S. senators, voting rights for women, animal welfare standards, civil rights, campaign finance reform, and many other reforms we now view as critical in a civil society.
The HSUS and a strong coalition of organizations – including Michigan’s Native American tribes, the Detroit Zoological Society, Audubon Society chapters, the Sierra Club and so many other organizations – are utilizing this constitutional process to restore the state’s long-standing protections for the small, recovering population of gray wolves, who inhabit the rich and wide forests of the Upper Peninsula of Michigan.
The state constitution not only provides the basis for the initiative and referendum process, but it also creates a system of representative government, where lawmakers are elected to serve the interests of voters in the state. The people vest power in these citizen lawmakers and executives and other officeholders.
Respect for the democratic process is a foundation stone of our political and civil society, and state lawmakers should be the first group to honor the process and the constitution. But what’s happening in Michigan is an abuse of power – a legally defensible set of actions, but a morally and politically unacceptable series of maneuvers and dirty, dishonest dealings that subvert the principles of citizen decision-making and undermine what limited confidence citizens have in representative government. It also eliminates a critical check-and-balance on representative government run amok. Indeed, the initiative and referendum process was designed as a hedge on the actions of lawmakers in the hold of special interests.
Here’s some background:
The HSUS and other groups qualified a referendum in the early part of 2013 in an attempt to give all state voters the opportunity to decide on a wolf-hunting season set by lawmakers, soon after the federal government removed wolves from the list of endangered species. State lawmakers tried to subvert our referendum by passing a second wolf hunting measure before the people could even vote on the issue.
We responded with a second referendum, collecting hundreds of thousands of voter signatures, even though we felt aggrieved by this abuse of power by lawmakers and their special interest allies.
Now, lawmakers are making a third attempt to lock in wolf hunting, and doing so by trying to subvert our second ballot measure. Hunting groups qualified their own initiative petition, and now lawmakers are attempting to rubber-stamp it and deny a vote of the people. If lawmakers approve the petition, it could undermine the two referenda we’ve already qualified, and that will appear on the November ballot.
Just about every Michigan newspaper has called this series of legislative actions an abuse of power – with state senators coming back for a single day of lawmaking to take a third swipe at wolves and voters, even though the state had many pressing matters that lawmakers rightly should have focused on.
I do believe that the state’s newspapers have it exactly right, and this is what they had to say:
“[A]n MLive.com investigation last fall found government half-truths, falsehoods and skewed statistics distorted arguments for the hunt…. Considering these facts, voters should be given the opportunity to decide … Lawmakers: Don’t deny Michigan citizens their voice yet again.” Grand Rapids Press (and seven other major newspapers), Aug. 3.
“Since the public called for these questions by collecting a substantial number of signatures on petitions … voters should decide. Next week, the state House should let them.” Livingston Daily, Aug. 15.
“[The Senate’s] legislation effectively thwarts the effort to ban wolf hunting… This isn’t the first time the lawmakers have acted against the public’s right to decide important state issues.” Port Huron Times Herald, Aug. 16
“In light of the poor decision making skills of the state when it comes to wolves, citizens rightly stood up to them and started a petition to protect these animals. But [the Senate instead endorsed] a competing petition, based in those same untruths and fears that caused the wolf to be made a game animal in the first place...” Petoskey News, Aug. 15.
“Adding insult to injury, Wednesday’s wolf hunt vote was held on the only day in August the Senate will meet. Senators interrupted their five-week summer vacation to return to Lansing solely to steal the voters’ right to participate in the lawmaking process.” Traverse City Record-Eagle, Aug. 14.
“The GOP-controlled Senate … utterly disregard[ed] the will of the majority of citizens who oppose the hunting of gray wolves…. [T]he zealousness of those pursuing the hunt, their willingness to exaggerate or fabricate examples of wolf depredation and the dismissiveness with which they treat wolf biologists inspire no confidence in us.… [T]his initiative belongs … on the November ballot — and we beseech lawmakers in the House regardless of their personal view to put their trust in citizens.” Battle Creek Enquirer, Aug. 14.
“There is no imperative — no pressing public interest — to establish a wolf hunt, certainly not against the will of the majority of Michigan voters…. If lawmakers give a lick about the rights of its citizens and the democratic process, they will let voters decide this issue.” Battle Creek Enquirer, July 26.
“By blocking not one but two efforts to refer legislation to voters, lawmakers would send a bad signal. Let voters spend the next three months considering the merits of the proposals.” Lansing State Journal, Aug. 9.
“Last week, the Detroit area was hit by a massive rainstorm that closed parts or all of every freeway, some for days. Thousands of basements were flooded … But incredibly, when lawmakers met the day after the flood, the only item on their agenda was passing a bill to prevent a referendum that would outlaw the hunting of wolves.” The Toledo Blade, Aug. 18.
The Michigan House is set to vote on the issue on August 27th. But if they care about good government and matters like trust and proper governance, they will not call up a third wolf-hunting bill. The voters of the state deserve an opportunity to decide the issue. That’s proper and right.
But if lawmakers continue to charge ahead with the subversion of voting rights, they will expose themselves as holding the view that they think that Michiganders are too dimwitted to decide whether wolves should be hunted or trapped – ironically the same group of citizens who put these lawmakers in office.