"We need tougher animal protection laws!"

This is one of the few mantras that almost everyone in the animal welfare/animal rights movements can agree on. The question is how do you do it? Laws are passed by legislators who supposedly represent their constituents, not by the voters themselves, and therein rests the problem. With mid-term elections a week away and voting already underway in some states, how can voters identify candidates who support animal welfare legislation?

Representative government works only so long as the voters have the ability to make intelligent choices about the candidates. How many issues do Candidate "A" and I agree on? How about Candidate "B?" Do I vote the straight party line because Democrats and always right and Republicans are always wrong, or vice versa? Or because my parents were staunch supporters of one party or another and it’s too difficult to give the matter any real thought? And where does the Tea Party fit in?

Thomas Jefferson said: "Whenever the people are well-informed, they can be trusted with their own government." Unfortunately, being an informed voter is getting harder and harder these days. Somewhere along the line political advertising took a nasty turn and innuendo took precedence over issues. You can thank the United States Supreme Court for that, in part at least. Earlier this year, in Citizens United v. Federal Election Committee, the Court tossed out many restrictions on corporate spending for election advertising. One result has been a rash of negative political ads sponsored by organizations that often have no direct connection to either the candidates or the state where the elections are being held.

Political ads no longer state a candidate’s position on the issues. Rather than saying "vote for me," political ads now urge voters not to vote for the other guy, who usually is characterized as incompetent, a crook, a sleaze, a career politician, or some combination of these. To my knowledge animal welfare has not been mentioned by a candidate for any federal, state, or local public office in Kentucky. Odds are that is true everywhere. Slinging mud is easier than actually taking a stand on an issue, which leaves voters with the task of ferreting out nuggets of information on their own. For incumbents a good yardstick is the candidate’s voting record.

A good source for information about the status of legislation and about how members of Congress vote is www.GovTrack.us.

Consider the Restore Our American Mustangs Act, which has become even more important in light of the Bureau of Land Management’s apparent mishandling of recent mustang round-ups in the West. Press reports might tell you that the bill was passed last year in the House of Representatives and is stalled in committee in the Senate, but what does that really mean for the future of the bill?

GovTrack tells you who voted for and against the bill in the House. GovTrack tells you that the bill was sponsored in the Senate by Sen. Robert Byrd (who died in June) and that there is only one co-sponsor, Kirsten Gillibrand, a Democrat from New York. GovTrack tells you that the bill was referred to the Committee on Energy and Natural Resources on Aug. 5, 2009 and that nothing has happened since then. GovTrack tells you that the Committee has 23 members, 12 Democrats, 11 Republicans, and one Independent; that 265 bills have been referred to the Committee during the current legislative session; and that only 11 bills considered by the Committee this session actually have become law. The odds that the Mustang bill will reach the entire Senate this session are not good; odds that the bill will become law are even worse. Finally, GovTrack identifies the members of the Committee, allowing letters and e-mails about the bill to be directed to the people who hold its fate in their hands.

GovTrack also has a free subscription feature that allows you to identify bills to "track." The Restore Our American Mustangs Act is one of the bills on my tracking list and I receive an e-mail when anything happens relating to the selected legislation. For this bill my mailbox has been ominously empty. There are other web sites for tracking legislation at the federal and state level and for many incumbents a review of their voting records is the only way to learn where the candidates stand on the issues.

With no voting record and useless political advertising it can be impossible to figure out where a newcomer with no voting record stands on an issue like animal welfare. Voters, essentially, are buying the proverbial pig in a poke.

It’s hard to believe that forcing voters to pick the lesser of two evils is what Thomas Jefferson and his colleagues had in mind.