Opinion

Protecting the freedom to vote will help us tackle the climate crisis

getty

Most interactions that a person of my color has with the police are fraught with tension. Yet, right before the winter holidays began, I chose to get arrested in front of the White House to call attention to the freedom to vote. And when I showed my grandmother a cell phone video of my arrest, she smiled with pride and nodded.

My grandmother was born in 1934, in the Jim Crow south of rural Athens, Georgia. I will never forget the joy she had in voting for the first Black President. And now the state of Georgia has cracked down so hard on initiatives to help people vote that it is illegal for someone to so much as give her a cup of water while she waits in line to vote.

Today, the right to vote, racial justice, and the environmental movement are more intertwined than ever before. The climate crisis affects us all, but not equally. Black, Brown, Indigenous, and working-class communities are disproportionately exposed to the health and economic impacts. We cannot meet the demands of science and justice without including our communities in the political process.

We are on the front lines of climate change, both as the places where fossil fuels are extracted and processed and where the harmful health impacts are hitting first and worst. Today’s restrictions on the freedom to vote are steamrolling voters to protect the industry that is hurting them. 

Consider Texas, which produces more oil and gas than any other state in the U.S., and more than every other country in the world except for Russia and Saudi Arabia. The oil and gas industry also vacuumed up $1.8 billion in subsidies from the Texas government during this last state legislative session, and then showered Texas elected officials with $3.2 million in political donations after the state legislative session ended.

This year, Texas lawmakers passed legislation to create deliberate barriers to vote, which the governor signed into law after months of political clashes and standoffs. The legislation makes it more difficult to vote early, vote by mail or help voters with disabilities, and eases restrictions on partisan “poll watchers.” The new law undermines innovations implemented by the city of Houston and Harris County that helped improve voter turnout, especially in Black, Brown, and underserved communities.

Just up the Interstate from Harris County, Port Arthur hosts the nation’s largest oil refinery, some of the biggest sources of sulfur dioxide pollution, and a host of petrochemical refineries that, for the most part, only make the news when climate-change-fueled hurricanes shut them down. Black people are 75 percent more likely to live near polluting facilities like these, and those in Port Arthur and neighboring West Port Arthur are no exception.

The cities sit in Jefferson County, where 89 percent of the population that voted in the 2020 election did so by voting early. The county had its best voter turnout numbers since 1988. The innovations that helped boost voter turnout are now restricted under the new law.

But Texas, which leads the country in burning fossil fuels for electricity generation, is not alone. The number two state, Florida, generates 80 percent of its power from fossil fuels. In April, Florida adopted a sweeping set of restrictions that limit the freedom to vote and then tried to block University of Florida legal experts from testifying on how the restrictions impacted communities of color.

This year, Arizona, which produces only 11 percent of its electricity from renewable sources despite the solar energy potential of its vast desert landscapes, restricted access to absentee and mail-in ballots while expanding the power of local governments to delete people from the voter rolls after missing a recent election. Last year, the state, whose population is 45 percent people of color, had its highest level of voter participation since 1980, a record that won’t be surpassed if the new barriers to voting aren’t challenged.

More than half a century ago, people participated in civil disobedience to assert their freedom to vote. They were hauled into jail, mistreated, sometimes beaten, for simply refusing to leave the courthouse until they were registered to vote. These people, heroes like Diane Nash and Faye Bellamy-Powell, inspire me and their courage helped steel my nerves while the police led me away. My grandmother has witnessed progress in her lifetime, but we are still fighting for a right long denied.

We need to reverse these new anti-voter laws and stop the next crop of bills before they take root. The Freedom to Vote Act in the Senate and the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act in the House of Representatives would reduce the flow of massive donations into politics, reduce restrictions on voting, offer new protections for voters, and end gerrymandering—so that electoral districts won’t be drawn to reduce the voting strength of communities of color.

A healthy democracy, one that responds to the urgent demand for racial justice, is a precondition for a healthy environment. This is not just an isolated problem; the climate crisis is pummeling us all. And at the heart of the storm is the fossil fuel industry; the only way to remove their death grip from our democracy is to enforce the freedom to cast our ballots safely and equally. To me, this is worth putting my body on the line, risking the violence of police arrest to make this point. Others have risked more, and many others remain at risk if we do not change.

Ebony Twilley Martin is co-executive director of Greenpeace USA.