Voting for Climate Justice: America’s Systemic Voter Suppression — A Brief Overview
Claire
Spector
September 29, 2021

Characterized by a devastating global pandemic, pervasive economic instability, a momentous US presidential election, widespread civil unrest, and mounting extreme weather disasters exacerbated by climate change, the year 2020 could only be described as unprecedented. And while this turbulent “new normal” has left many feeling unstable and fearful of the unknown, it has also served as a kind of reality check, ripping through the veneer of the status quo and bringing many of the structural injustices embedded within our society into sharp relief.

The people’s frustration is palpable. In November, Americans saw an opportunity to air their displeasure and arrest their collective suffering by casting their votes in the 2020 elections—only to be met with calculated efforts to suppress these votes and the calls for change behind them. Voting is one of our most sacred and fundamental rights as citizens. It is preservative of all other rights; a gateway to ensuring that our representatives in government reflect the will of the people and govern in our best interest. However, this right is under assault.

Voting is one of our most sacred and fundamental rights as citizens. It is preservative of all other rights; a gateway to ensuring that our representatives in government reflect the will of the people and govern in our best interest.

In the United States, corporate polluters have launched a major attack on American democracy. The goal of this polluter-industrial complex (PIC) has been to silence the voices of communities most impacted by their extractive activities (the extraction of labor, community wealth, and of course, natural resources), and to install representatives that will see to it their license to extract remains well protected. Their strategy? Providing dark money and resources to politically aligned candidates and conservative organizations that spread misinformation surrounding elections.

The American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), Honest Elections Project, the Koch Network, the Bradley Foundation, and the Mercer family are just a few of those leading the effort to suppress the vote with dark money—and their funds are not failing them. During the 2019-2020 election cycle, prominent members of the GOP and conservative-leaning organizations received fossil fuel funding totaling over $60 million, representing only a portion of the funding that is traceable.

The polluter-industrial complex funnels dark money into conservative organizations to ensure the election of industry-friendly officials. Image from: iStock

These millions would go on to finance myriad voter suppression tactics, beginning with attacks on institutional trust through baseless claims of “voter fraud” that continue to be touted despite having been debunked time and time again. The very idea of the Big Lie—the belief pushed by Republicans that voter fraud led to a 2020 election that was neither free nor fair—is actually poisonous to our elections becoming more free and fair. The myth of voter fraud opens a Pandora’s box to justify other suppression tactics. Misinformation and voter fraud enable a whole host of nefarious suppression strategies in the name of “election security.”

The enactment of targeted voter ID restrictions, the wrongful purging of thousands of voters from the rolls, the intentional weakening of the US Postal Service, the use of gerrymandering to manipulate the allocation of congressional seats, and the disenfranchisement of incarcerated individuals are all profound threats to our understanding of what American democracy can be. These tactics—coupled with other tried-and-true strategies like voter discouragement, harassment, and intimidation—are proving alarmingly effective in furthering the PIC’s efforts to suppress the vote, and have become increasingly common in recent years. In January 2021 alone, 106 bills to restrict voting were introduced, prefiled, or carried over in 28 states—three times as many as during that same time the year before.

By using suppression tactics to disenfranchise specific populations—Black and Brown Americans, Indigenous people, the LGBTQIA+ community, students, people with disabilities, the incarcerated, and more—the PIC is attempting to silence popular mobilizations for climate and social justice and increasingly successful efforts to curtail the fossil fuel industry’s impacts. With these populations being disproportionately harmed by polluting infrastructure and climate change, and thus more likely to vote for meaningful environmental regulation and climate policy, it is clear that these suppression tactics are targeted and intentional.

By using suppression tactics to disenfranchise specific populations... the PIC is attempting to silence popular mobilizations for climate and social justice and increasingly successful efforts to curtail the fossil fuel industry’s impacts.
The Barriers That Keep Blacks and Latinos From Voting - The Atlantic
Voter suppression disproportionately impacts certain populations that are more likely to support environmental legislation. Image from: Stockbyte by Katie Martin

This is not an isolated phenomenon—it is not about a singular election, or even Donald Trump. Suppression tactics have long sought to divide and conquer the mosaic of American identities that might organize for systems change. Now, they seek to undermine the American democratic system itself, sowing mistrust in our public institutions and doubt in the integrity of our elections.

We the people have to connect the dots to see these tactics as part of an intentional, interconnected plan to concentrate power using the many-headed hydra of suppression—and to push for similarly multifaceted protections of our most fundamental right. So, what can we do about this entrenched system of political control? Here at the Global Center for Climate Justice, we have delved deeply into what links voter suppression and climate justice. We have identified the money pipelines, the advocates fighting to expand democracy, and collected voting rights proposals to improve the representation of the people and move toward a more equitable system. 

From reforms to federal legislation, transparency measures, and community mobilization, we have the tools and people power necessary to push for a more representative democracy. We can pass the Voting Rights Advancement Act (HR-4) and the For the People Act (HR-1) to force the states and localities with recent histories of voter discrimination to submit any proposed election law changes to the Department of Justice for review, and also allow for a suite of reforms to expand voting rights and representation. Reforming campaign finance to get big money out of politics and allow for public funding options to give small-name candidates a fighting chance in elections will enable the voices of the majority to be heard.

‘Democracy is on the line and this is an all hands on deck moment to fight back,,’ said Austin Evers.
Protestors demand an end to voter suppression and big money in politics. Image from: Shutterstock by Allison Bailey

Equally as critical is the step of reforming the electoral college and implementing proportional voting in its place. Everyone’s vote ought to count, and reforms in this area—increasing the number of representatives, moving toward citizen-led redistricting commissions, and enacting a national popular vote and local proportional voting systems—can get us there. Other important actions in the fight for a more democratic future include allowing the previously and currently incarcerated to vote, ending prison gerrymandering, and expanding civics education for adults and children alike.

When we get closer to ensuring that all Americans can vote, we also get closer to action on climate change that will serve us all. About 70 percent of Americans see climate change as a threat. 62 percent have seen climate change harm their local communities. As we expand the electorate to those most harmed by it through grassroots organizing, litigation, and thoughtful policy, we can better channel our desire for a habitable future into action.

When we get closer to ensuring that all Americans can vote, we also get closer to action on climate change that will serve us all.

In the coming months, we will be releasing our landmark report on voter suppression and climate justice. Our report takes a much more comprehensive look at voter suppression—the tactics it involves, the groups it benefits, the communities it harms, the role it plays in hindering the passage of meaningful environmental legislation, and the steps we can take to minimize it. We’re creating an easy-to-read but comprehensive review for anyone wanting to learn more about this attack on our most fundamental right and how voter suppression has become a tool of the fossil fuel industry to stop climate action. In the pursuit of democracy and the preservation of our planet, it is essential that we expand and ensure the right to vote—we hope our report is used as a guide for action to this end. 

Interested in getting an early release copy? Let us know by emailing: comms@climatejusticecenter.org

 

Calls to protect the American democratic system are being made across the nation. Image from: AP by Susan Walsh

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