Voting rights are essential for environmental justice and climate action

In Atlanta, President Biden recently raised the alarm about the proliferation of dangerous state laws across the country aimed at further suppressing and subverting the right to vote, and invoked the need for federal-level voter protection interventions. Georgia is currently ground zero in this battle since sweeping changes to the state’s election laws last year prompted lawsuits for targeting the rights of voters of color. Biden’s speech came at the start of Georgia’s 2022 legislative session where lawmakers will debate proposals to expand on last year’s laws, including banning ballot drop boxes for absentee voters and investigating election 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 it more difficult to vote.

If national legislation is not passed to protect voting rights, the bills currently on the table in states across the country will disproportionately thwart Black voters and other marginalized communities from casting their votes. This would not only serve as a huge blow to American democracy, but it would also be a step backward for environmental justice and climate action.

Congress has two opportunities to pass national legislation to protect voting rights. The Freedom to Vote Act would establish 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 fully restore the 1965 Voting Rights Act, which has been chipped away at by recent Supreme Court actions.

While these new restrictions are ostensibly in the name of preventing supposed voter fraud, let’s be clear: extensive research has proven that fraud is rare, and there is no evidence that the proposed state bills will actually address what little fraud exists. Instead, these bills will prevent people from casting their votes. Subversive tactics like interfering with local election administration undermine local control and public confidence. Removing or reducing drop boxes for absentee voters eliminates one of the most convenient voting options. Consolidating or closing polling locations in densely populated communities will result in voters waiting 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 a multitude of 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 U.S. is directly linked to the ongoing struggle for climate and environmental justice. Communities of color, people living with disabilities and other historically marginalized communities disenfranchised by election injustice are the same ones most harmed by climate and environmental injustices. It’s well documented that communities of color, low income and marginalized communities contribute the least to climate change but suffer the most from its impacts. Climate-fueled natural disasters are already deepening the wealth inequality gap between white people and people of color. Communities of color are also much more likely to live near major sources of pollution, and are disproportionately harmed by other environmental hazards, from drinking water pollution in Flint, Michigan to the devastating effects of last February’s winter storm in Texas.

Voter suppression practices such as gerrymandering disproportionately harm Black, Latino and Asian voters. As a result of lived experience, voters of color are more concerned than white voters about climate change. According to the Yale Program on Climate Change Communication, Latino voters are more likely to contact government officials about climate change, and more Black Americans than white Americans are alarmed by what’s happening to the climate. Voter protection laws will help ensure that no one is deprived of the opportunity to elect officials who have their interests at heart, including supporting policies and practices that can help buffer their communities from the harshest impacts of climate change.

A recent environmental justice analysis of Ohio’s redrawn (and recently struck down) congressional districts further makes this point. The analysis mapped the state’s new districts over demographic, economic and health hazards data for communities across the state. It found that those communities with the worst health hazards — which are predominately communities of color — “have been split apart in a way that dilutes their political influence, as they are combined into larger districts with suburban and rural areas that do not experience the same health risks.”  

Voters from across the environmental and climate justice community are pushing back against these Jim Crow-esque election laws. According to a 2020 survey by Latino Decisions, Latino voters, regardless of political party, support federal policies to protect against water and air pollution. More than half of U.S. Latinos, 55 percent, reside in one of the three states that have seen the most recent devastating climate disasters: the California wildfires, Texas heatwaves and Florida sea-level rise. In each state, the Latino community is fighting to expand voter access and correct election disinformation.

The right to vote and have every vote counted is one of the central pillars of any democracy, and one that American politicians love to defend in campaign speeches. Congress owes it to the American people to do all they can to protect it. It is imperative that Congress act to ensure that all voters can make their voices and priorities heard through elections and are not silenced by actions that resemble those of authoritarian countries. Disenfranchisement will only deepen existing inequities in this country at a time when we need all voices heard and all-hands-on-deck to help build a more promising future.

Carla Walker is the director of Environmental Justice and Equity at World Resources Institute, United States. Follower her on Twitter at @globalsistah

Civil Rights