The E-mail Commentary from Eco-Justice Ministries
I heard a surprising statistic a few months ago. Deeply committed environmentalists in the US are less likely to vote than other citizens.
Yup -- LESS likely to vote.
There are probably several factors at play. We're fed up with politics as usual. There aren't policies that adequately address the issues we're so passionate about. The candidates seem tainted, and don't meet our high standards. And thus many people who care deeply about environmental issues don't fill out a ballot.
It is a big enough problem that the Environmental Voter Project was formed to "find environmentalists across the United States and makes sure that they vote in every election." A staff member of the Environmental Voter Project told me the statistic about low voting rates, and he talked about how their focus is "on changing the electorate, rather than trying to win isolated elections." If you are not a regular voter -- or even if you are -- you can sign their environmental voter pledge, and help to build a more engaged electorate.
I'm worried about those who don't get involved in elections. If we're not voting, then we're not making use of one of the powerful tools to make progress (or stop the damage) on issues that we care about.
As a slogan puts it, "Bad politicians are elected by good people who don't vote."
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Let me illustrate with an example from Colorado, and go from there into some analysis. The context of this story is a bit complicated -- and these details may be important to potential voters in my home state.
The tension between environmental concerns (climate change, clean air and water, healthy communities) and energy development (jobs, royalty money, and cheap energy) is intense here. Oil and gas is big business in Colorado. There are currently over 50,000 oil and gas wells in the state, and permits have been requested for over 5,000 new wells -- many of them in highly-populated regions north of Denver.
The negative impact of all this drilling, especially as it crowds into the suburbs, prompted a citizen-led ballot initiative, Proposition 112. If passed, that initiative will increase the required "setback" distance from new wells to homes, schools, other buildings, and vulnerable areas.
Drilling and fracking is a hot issue. A headline in this morning's Denver Post, referring to a north Denver suburb, says, "As Colorado voters consider limits on drilling, Commerce City faces prospect of nearly 200 new wells: Residents say oil, gas wells don't belong in residential areas." (Disclosure: Eco-Justice Ministries has endorsed Proposition 112, and we strongly encourage our constituents in Colorado to vote YES on this ballot measure.)
This fall's election also includes a race for the open Governor's office. Both of the major party candidates for Governor have refused to endorse the setback initiative -- which may be the only place where the two men agree on an energy policy issue. The Republican is an oil and gas booster, who makes no mention of climate change on his website. The Democrat is a well-known environmentalist, who is running on a pledge to get the state to 100% renewable energy by 2040.
But in August, when the Democratic candidate said that he would not endorse 112, one of the activists working on the initiative announced to a reporter that "I'll never vote for him" because of that lack of endorsement.
I assume the activist will be voting for Prop 112 this fall, but apparently he won't vote in the Governor's race. A deeply committed environmental activist will be taking a pass in the choice for the state's most influential policy-maker, when there is a big difference between the candidate's environmental policies.
Now, I know that there is a strategic reason why some would make such a choice. When trying to move a political party into stronger stances on important issues -- the environment, racial justice, guns -- those who are left of the liberals, or right of the conservatives, may feel that their vote is taken for granted by the party leaders. "Of course we'll vote for candidate X, because that's the best choice we've got." In such a situation, not voting is claimed as a way to punish the party leaders for not taking us seriously, or doing enough to advance our issues.
But in today's political climate, with highly polarized positions, and a very narrow balance of power in Congress and many state legislatures, I find a more pragmatic course of action to be compelling. In our less-than-perfect political system, especially in the general election, I'll vote for the candidates and the ballot measures that are the best fit with my social goals. I'll vote even when they're not perfect.
Which is not to say that I'll let my political party ignore me. Activists can, and must, work to influence parties by fighting for political platform positions, by participating in caucus meetings, by voting in primary elections for issue-oriented candidates, by making donations, and by lobbying candidates and party leaders.
It seems to be common knowledge these days that for Republicans serving in the US House and Senate, the real fear that they have heading into elections is that they will be "primaried" -- with a more conservative candidate challenging them in the primary election. In that setting, at least, it is the primary election that most dramatically shapes the positions of candidates. A threat to not vote in the general election doesn't have as much power to shape platforms.
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Deeply committed environmentalists in the US are less likely to vote than other citizens.
That's a frightening statistic. When major environmental policies are being rolled back, when climate change is taking us into catastrophe (I hope to deal with this week's IPCC report soon), when cities and states are needing to pick up leadership on these sorts of issues, this is not the time to be silent. This is not the time to pass on voting.
I urge you -- whatever your political party or most passionate issues -- VOTE this fall.
If you're not registered to vote, or if your registration needs to be updated, there may still be time to file that paperwork. Get going on that today.
When you vote, vote all the way down the ballot. The "top of the ballot" candidates are important, but so are the ones for less prominent offices and issues -- state legislators, judges, and ballot initiatives. Do your best to be informed, and to make responsible choices.
"Bad politicians are elected by good people who don't vote." Please, vote this fall.
P.S. -- Eco-Justice Ministries is recruiting Colorado faith leaders to endorse Proposition 112. Interested? Please let me know!
Eco-Justice Ministries * 400 S Williams St, Denver, CO 80209 * 303.715.3873
Home Page: www.eco-justice.org * E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org