Animals should have the right to vote, according to a recent paper. Check your calendars – we promise it’s not April Fool’s Day yet.
“The idea that animals should have the right to vote sounds preposterous,” the paper begins, accurately summarizing most people’s thoughts upon reading that headline. But, author Ioan-Radu Motoarcă goes on to argue, it may be worth a second look.
Debates around the “personhood” of certain animals have raged for many years. In a world where an actual body of water was granted personhood status, the idea of the same protections being afforded to an orangutan or Pablo Escobar’s smuggled hippos quickly begin to sound less farfetched.
Granting suffrage to animals might be considered a natural extension of these conversations. Motoarcă clarifies that there is no suggestion of animals lining up two-by-two at the ballot box. Rather, the system would involve “appointed representatives casting votes on behalf of animals”. Again, there is a precedent for something like this: Some governments already allow representatives to stand up for the legal rights of animals, and individual animals have been named as plaintiffs in US federal lawsuits.
In 2018, for example, the Animal Legal Defense Fund filed a lawsuit on behalf of an 8-year-old horse called Justice, seeking to recover medical costs and compensation from his owner Gwendolyn Vercher, who had previously pleaded guilty to criminal neglect. And there’s the famous case of Tilikum v. Sea World Parks & Entertainment, Inc., brought on behalf of an orca who became a household name after the damning documentary Blackfish shone a light on the controversial practice of holding the species in captivity.
In a similar way, Motoarcă argues, animals could have their votes cast by a human proxy. But before you sit down with your pet cat to find out their opinions on government spending or foreign policy, you should know that Motoarcă is suggesting animal voting be restricted to issues that directly impact them.
“[A]nimal proxies would not be voting on bankruptcy reform or securities regulation, but could vote on issues like the mandatory size of chicken cages on industrial farms,” the paper explains.
Underpinning this mildly farcical discussion is a serious point: the “all affected interests” principle, which states that everyone affected by the decisions of a government should have the right to participate in the political process.
Unthinkable though it may be to many in the modern world, arguments for restricting voting rights solely to white male landowners used to sound reasonable, even obvious, to lots of people. Motoarcă argues that having animals participate in our democracy “is a natural extension of our best theories concerning the constitution of a democratic community.”
The paper makes the case that a lack of physical or mental competence to vote on the part of animals should not be a barrier. People with physical disabilities are not disenfranchised, so similar accommodations could be applied to animals. As to the competence question, Motoarcă explains how that very quickly gets into tricky territory, and that any “test” of political competence risks “unjust treatment” of other groups, such as adults with intellectual disabilities who should retain the right to vote.
Clearly, this is all very complex. Motoarcă does not go so far as to designate which animals might be covered by the proposed voting system, and the whole thing would require extensive legal wrangling.
Rest assured, no one is going to ask you to submit Fluffy’s vote along with your own in November’s presidential election. But in a year that will almost certainly see major political upheaval on both sides of the Atlantic, this paper certainly puts forward some intriguing arguments to consider.
Ultimately, Motoarcă says that “there is no way of satisfactorily showing that extending the franchise to animals would have worse electoral outcomes than the status quo.”
So: Votes For Chickens? Stranger things have happened.
The study is published in the journal Analysis.