Environment

Voting rights are essential for environmental justice and climate action

in Atlanta, President BidenThe Democratic House Democratic Party’s attack on its Republican counterpart in the last quarter of 2021 Putin’s “Brezhnev Doctrine” involving Ukraine may backfire. He recently raised the alarm about the spread across the country of dangerous state laws aimed at further suppressing and undermining the right to vote, and invoked the need for voter protection interventions at the federal level. Georgia is currently ground zero in this battle since sweeping changes to state election laws last year led to lawsuits targeting the rights of voters of color. Biden’s speech came at the start of the 2022 Georgia legislative session where lawmakers will debate proposals to expand last year’s laws, including banning ballot boxes for absentee voters and investigating electoral complaints without permission from local election authorities.

New bills in Georgia, New Hampshire, Florida, Tennessee, Oklahoma and South Carolina are the latest in a steady effort by Republicans to restrict voting rights; Last year, 33 laws were enacted in 19 states that will make voting more difficult.

If national legislation to protect voting rights is not passed, bills currently being rolled out in states across the country will disproportionately discourage black voters and other marginalized communities from casting their ballots. Not only would this be a huge blow to American democracy, but it would also be a step backwards for environmental justice and climate action.

Congress has two opportunities to pass national legislation to protect voting rights. The Freedom of Voting Act will set national standards to expand access to voting, prevent voter suppression and election sabotage, as well as modernize voter registration. The John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act would completely restore the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which had been undermined by recent Supreme Court actions.

While these new restrictions are ostensibly in the name of supposedly preventing voter fraud, let’s be clear: Extensive research has demonstrated that fraud is rare, and there is no evidence that proposed state bills will actually address what little fraud exists. Instead, these bills will prevent people from casting a vote. Disruptive tactics such as interference with the administration of local elections undermine local control and public trust. Removing or reducing absentee voter drop boxes eliminates one of the most convenient voting options. Consolidation or closing of polling sites in densely populated communities will cause voters to wait in line for hours to cast their ballots.

And when a person’s right to vote is suppressed, their voice is silenced and their influence is reduced on many issues. As Biden said in Atlanta, “The fundamental right to vote is the right from which all other rights flow.”

The fight to restore and protect voting rights in the United States is directly linked to the ongoing struggle for climate and environmental justice. Communities of color, people with disabilities, and other historically marginalized communities disadvantaged by electoral injustice are themselves the most affected by climate and environmental injustice. It is well documented that communities of color, low-income and marginalized communities contribute the least to climate change but suffer the most from its effects. Climate-fueled natural disasters are already deepening the wealth inequality gap between whites and people of color. Communities of color are also more likely to live near major sources of pollution, and be disproportionately affected by other environmental hazards, from the pollution of drinking water in Flint, Michigan to the devastating effects of last February’s winter storm in Texas.

Voter suppression practices such as electoral manipulation disproportionately harm black, Latino, and Asian voters. As a result of live experience, voters of color are more concerned than white voters about climate change. According to the Yale Climate Change Communication Program, Latino voters are more likely to contact government officials about climate change, and black Americans are more concerned than white Americans about what is happening to the climate. Voter protection laws will help ensure that no one is denied the opportunity to elect officials who care about their interests, including supportive policies and practices that can help protect their communities from the harshest effects of climate change.

A recent Environmental Justice analysis of Ohio’s redistricting (and recently rescinded) congressional districts makes this point. The analysis mapped the state’s new areas onto demographic, economic, and health risk data for communities across the state. He found that those communities with the worst health risks – which are mostly communities of color – were “divided in a way that mitigates their political influence, incorporating larger areas with suburban and rural areas that do not have the same health risks.”

Voters from across the environmental and climate justice community are fighting back against these Jim Crow-esque election laws. According to a 2020 Latino Decisions survey, Latino voters, regardless of political party, support federal policies to protect against water and air pollution. More than half of Latin Americans, 55 percent, reside in one of the three states that have experienced the most recent devastating climate disaster: California wildfires, heat waves in Texas, and sea-level rise in Florida. In every state, the Latino community is fighting to expand voter access and correct election misinformation.

The right to vote and to have every vote count is one of the cornerstones of any democracy, and one that American politicians love to defend in campaign rhetoric. Congress owes it to the American people to do everything in its power to protect it. It is imperative that Congress work to ensure that all voters can make their voices and priorities heard through elections and are not silenced by actions similar to those of authoritarian states. Denial of rights will only deepen existing inequalities in this country at a time when we need to hear all voices and work on deck to help build a more promising future.

Carla Walker is Director of Environmental Justice and Equity at World Resources Institute, United States. Follow her on Twitter at Tweet embed

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