How To Score Your Legislators on their Votes For Animal Protection

By Peter Muller

Scoring the performance of legislators seems to be a newly discovered art for many animal protective groups. Most animal protective groups are 501(c)(3) organizations, and because of their covenant with the IRS they are not allowed to electioneer (endorse or disapprove of a candidate who is running for office). They can, however, rate an incumbent legislator’s performance in office. Hence, without doing so explicitly, approve or disapprove of an incumbent officeholder’s performance.

Scoring, like most activities, can be done intelligently or brainlessly. If it is done right, it can be used to influence a legislator’s decision to vote for or against a pending bill. While lobbying for the passage or the blocking of a bill, I’ve been asked numerous times by the officeholder’s staff “Are we going to be scored on this?” So, it is a useful tool in the Animal Rights lobbyist’s tool box.

There are rules to be followed in order for the scoring to be meaningful.
Not all legislative proposals are equal, some are more important than others. The individual legislative action must be weighted with a factor representing its importance. The scale can range from -3 to +3. Positive weights indicate that action favors animal protection, negative values indicate that it is detrimental to animal protection. Less important actions are given lower values.

For example, a legislator’s support of a “Parakeet Appreciation Day” is a nice gesture, but it is not as important as outlawing trapping. Different organizations would sometimes rate the same bill with greater or lesser importance depending on their mission. An organization concerned primarily with wildlife protection will rate the importance of a bill that severely restricts trapping as higher than an organization whose mission is to protect farmed animals or improve conditions in shelters.

Not only should the importance of bills be weighted, but the type of action taken itself is vastly different in importance. Legislators do not only vote for or against bills, they also sponsor bills, they pass bills out of their committees, or they can sit on them in their committees and not vote them out. Heads of legislative bodies can allow them to come to the floor of the legislature for a vote with their support, or they can simply not allow a vote on them. All of those various activities must be objectively judged and ranked in accordance with their importance.

To do this right takes active lobbying experience at the legislative body that is being judged.

To simply scan the votes by computer from afar and add up the totals leads to uproariously misleading reports.

A case in point is one New York State Legislative Score Card.

The scoring was done only on some low-ranking bills. Some of them even had zero impact on any animals in the state since they proscribe actions that do not occur in the state! The two committees that must pass nearly all animal protective bills are the Environmental Conservation Committee, and the Agriculture Committee (in New York State domestic animal bills also go to the Agriculture Committee). The chairs of those committees in the state senate are headed by senators who totally oppose animal protection.

The chair of the Senate Environmental Conservation Committee has bottled up three significant bills for several years (prohibiting “canned hunts,” allowing counties to regulate trapping within their jurisdiction, and prohibiting wildlife shooting contests). The Agriculture Chair has similarly refused to move on outlawing Foie Gras production. Yet both of those Committee chairs received a score of 90% (an A-rating) on that score card!

From the intended goal of legislative score cards – informing voters concerned with animal protection of which legislators share their concern—the score card was woefully inadequate and downright misleading. Had anyone’s vote been influenced by it, they would have voted for individuals who consistently, without remorse (and without promise for change), act against the protection of animals.

Let’s have more intelligent scoring of legislators based on on-the-ground experience of how the legislators behave in the legislature not at cocktail parties. By putting out shallowly derived scorecards it hurts our common goal of protecting animals.

Peter Muller is President of LOHV-The League of Humane Voters– a national Political Action Committee (PAC) for Animal Protection

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